In clouds, coffee cups or tree trunks: we recognize faces everywhere. But why and how does our brain do this?
Pretty good, the potato grater, right?
Maybe this has happened to you several times: a look at the clouds, at the socket or at the cheese sandwich – and suddenly you see a face on the object. It’s funny what our brains do all day long. But wait a minute. What exactly is going on in these moments?
Automatic brain facial recognition
In short: our brain switches to autocompletion. In order to be able to process all the sensory impressions of the day, it is designed to recognize things. It looks for patterns in visual information and categorizes them into boxes that it already knows. This means we can react in a split second, even in new situations. Even when you look at a grain on a tree trunk, the constantly running facial recognition switches on and says: Look, a friendly face!
In psychology, this phenomenon is called “pareidolia”. In Greek, “Para” means next to or against and “Eidolon” means image or form.
Researchers now know that the “pretend” faces activate the same visual mechanisms in the brain as real faces. An Australian study from 2020 shows this.
Even fetuses can recognize fake faces
But how does this happen? One attempt at an explanation comes from evolutionary psychology: recognizing others has always been important for our coexistence and survival – and the fact that a person looking for a riot lurks in the bushes was of course a little more common in the Stone Age. From an evolutionary perspective, it could be an alarm function that is intended to ensure that people can locate hiding people and faces in everyday life.
As a 2017 British study shows, the ability is innate in us. The crazy thing: We don’t even have to have seen real faces for the effect to occur. Even unborn babies react to dots in the womb that are arranged like a face. In the study, fetuses noticeably often turned toward a face that was projected and constructed with light onto the womb.
Ig Nobel Prize for pareidolia research
In 2014, Canadian and Chinese researchers won the Ig Nobel Prize, which is awarded for curious yet serious research. They were the first scientists to investigate what happens in the brain during pareidolia.
Gender and age are determined
Interestingly, our brain does something else with the information: it assigns age, gender and mood to the face. The illusory faces are strikingly often perceived as young and male, as US researchers wrote in a study published in January.
They assume that our brain needs special signals to attribute feminine characteristics to a face.
Pareidolia in the automotive industry
Car designers also often play with the pareidolia effect: the headlights serve as eyes, the radiator grille and bumper serve as mouth and nose.
Their proportions and shapes are intended to convey emotions: We think a car with two spherical headlights is cute because it fits into the child’s mold. We associate dynamism and aggressiveness with tapered headlights, as sports cars often have. By the way, cars with a friendly grill and aggressive eyes are the most popular, as a study by Austrian and American researchers showed.
So is our brain sexist when it comes to facial recognition? In any case, the tendency towards masculinity is remarkable, according to the researchers. “Our brain tends to categorize faces that contain very little information as “male,” write the research leaders. However, it is (still) unclear whether this is socially trained or has biological causes.
Have we piqued your interest?
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