Learning to Live in an Upended World: Seeing Faces

Learning to Live in an Upended World: Seeing Faces

By Natalie Taylor

Do you tend to see faces in clouds, on stains, or on the stump of a tree? If so, it doesn’t mean you have a mental problem; what you experience is called pareidolia—the propensity to see familiar objects in random or abstract images. Experiments show that even newborns respond strongly to the simplest stylized face; this is a normal function of our brain in its attempt to interpret the world.

Pareidolia can involve any of the senses. The brain receives visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile information and interprets it into something that makes sense. A good example is smelling smoke. Your brain takes this in, then alerts your body to the possibility of imminent danger so you can act accordingly. The interpretation of two spots as possible eyes is a defense mechanism built into our psyche and was an excellent way to detect danger when we were hunter-gatherers. If you were foraging in a forest and spotted two dots in the bushes, you might imagine it was a predator. Taking this as fact would lead you to run away. If you were correct, and what you had seen was indeed a tiger, then perhaps your quick reaction gave you a chance for escape. If, however, you were wrong and what you had seen were two gnarls in the trunk of a tree—what did you lose other than a bit of pride? You can see how useful pareidolia has been in our evolution as human beings; it’s a remnant of our early humanoid ancestry. 

In 1865, German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum named the condition and explained it as “delusions in judgment,” giving it a negative connotation. But later psychiatrists, although still categorizing it as a psychological condition, saw it as a sign of creativity. The connection of pareidolia to creativity was even mentioned in the sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote in his diary: “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains…[you can] invent some scene.” The development of the Rorschach test in 1921 tapped into our creativity by looking at inkblots and assigning meaning to them. 

Some people seem to have a hyperactive sense of recognition; they see more images in patterns than others. What is interesting is that I think we all seem to have an increase in pareidolia during the pandemic lockdown. Why? Researchers have found that people are likely to see humanlike traits in inanimate objects when they are socially deprived. We are more likely to experience this when we have diminished human interactions, which is what has been happening as a result of social distancing and quarantining. 

So go ahead, look around. Does that paisley upholstery fabric have hidden birds or snakes? What about that stain on the wall–doesn’t it look like a bearded old man? Don’t fight it, enjoy this innate trait and consider yourself part of a conglomeration of creative people.