Why do we see faces in inanimate objects?

By Jack Ramage

Published Jul 22, 2021 at 09:08 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Take a look at the image above; what do you see? Well, a brick obviously, but sarcastic comment aside, you’ll probably see a face. We apes have developed quite a knack for spotting patterns, thanks to the evolutionary process we’ve faced floating on this big rock in space—spotting patterns of faces in inanimate objects is no exception. It’s the reason why the famous “Face on Mars” photograph, essentially a trick of light and shadow on an image taken in 1976 which gave the illusion that there was a creepy-looking face on the planet, gained so much attention. Even freakier, people have claimed to see Jesus himself on toast… holy crust. But what causes us to see faces? Scientists have dubbed the psychological behaviour as facial pareidolia, and there’s actually more to this phenomenon than meets the eye.

What is facial pareidolia?

Pareidolia is the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus, usually visual so that one sees an object, pattern or meaning where there is none. Common examples are perceived images of things like animals, faces, objects in cloud formations or in space objects—particularly the Moon. The list is long but if you’re in need of more convincing that it is, in fact, a natural and common trick of the mind, take a dive through the @FaceInThings Twitter account.

It’s claimed the concept of pareidolia can also be extended to hearing hidden messages in music played in reverse or at different speeds. This may explain why videos on YouTube claiming that ‘Stairway to Heaven‘ in reverse actually has hidden satanic messages—sorry to burst the bubble, that’s actually just pareidolia doing its thing, there’s no hidden agenda trying to sign people up to Satanism. At one point in time, pareidolia was considered a symptom of psychosis but it’s now recognised as a normal human tendency. Even computers have been able to display pareidolia-recognising faces in images when taught visual cues by scientists.

Why do we experience pareidolia?

Okay, so the evidence is clear: it’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, we all see faces in inanimate objects—and thanks to science, you can be assured that you’re not experiencing any symptoms of psychosis. But that only explains that the concept does exist, not why it exists. Researchers at the University of Sydney have attempted to answer this question. They found that not only do we see faces in everyday objects, our brains process objects for emotional expression—similar to how we do for real faces—rather than disregarding the objects as ‘false’ detections. In the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, they argued that this mechanism is perhaps an evolutionary trait, due to the need to quickly judge whether a person is a friend or foe.

Lead author, David Alais, a researcher at the University of Sydney, told The Guardian in an interview that “we are such a sophisticated social species and face recognition is very important…” He continued: “You need to recognize who it is, is it family, is it a friend or foe, what are their intentions and emotions? Faces are detected incredibly fast. The brain seems to do this using a kind of template-matching procedure. So if it sees an object that appears to have two eyes above a nose above a mouth, then it goes, ‘Oh I’m seeing a face’. It’s a bit fast and loose and sometimes it makes mistakes, so something that resembles a face will often trigger this template match.”

The next time you see a face in an object, whether that be a piece of fruit, a shot of the Moon or even just the clouds—don’t freak out, it’s just pareidolia. When you think about it, the concept is both fascinating and humbling: it’s a stark reminder that although we feel disconnected from our ancestors, we’re still bound to our evolved monkey-brain bodies. Oh, and sorry if I ruined your Jesus apparition fantasies—don’t read too much into it.

Keep On Reading

By Abby Amoakuh

BBC presenter apologises after giving the middle finger to audience mid-broadcast

By Charlie Sawyer

Side hustles are going to be taxed in the UK in January 2024. Here’s everything you need to know

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Dakota Johnson fails to name a single Tom Holland Spider-Man movie during Madame Web promo

By Charlie Sawyer

Golden Globes 2024: Kylie Jenner forbids Timothée Chalamet from taking picture with Selena Gomez

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Inside Johnny Depp’s bizarre new bromance with Saudi Crown Prince MBS

By Abby Amoakuh

Jeffrey Epstein flight logs: Prince Andrew controversy resurfaces as nearly 200 names to be released

By Abby Amoakuh

Far-right influencers try to bail out Elon Musk as Disney and Apple leave X due to antisemitism claims

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Is the end of Airbnb near? Two subreddits point to an impending flop

By Abby Amoakuh

Pro-suicide website finally blocked by broadband providers after being linked to 50 deaths in the UK

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Of course the US far right is spreading false claims that the Lakewood Church shooter was trans

By Abby Amoakuh

Is football apolitical? Here is how FIFA and the UEFA are used to further political agendas

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Student dies a painful death after inhaling two to three bottles of laughing gas every day

By Charlie Sawyer

Confessions of a 15-year-old drama queen: digging up my old teenage diaries

By Abby Amoakuh

Fans campaign for Jonathan Majors’ Marvel comeback after actor avoids prison in domestic violence case

By Charlie Sawyer

Brooklyn Beckham launches London pop-up restaurant to bless us with his cooking

By Charlie Sawyer

Influencer claims if you don’t tattoo your boyfriend’s name on your forehead, you don’t love him

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

George Santos sues Jimmy Kimmel after taking distasteful jab at Amy Schumer’s appearance

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Who is Bobbi Althoff, the podcaster who’s rumoured to have had an affair with Drake?

By Charlie Sawyer

Russian scientist injects himself with 3.5-million-year-old bacteria to try and live forever

By Charlie Sawyer

Making the case for Louis Theroux to be declared an official Gen Z icon