The Fascinating Science Behind Why We See 'Faces' In Objects

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iStock

Diane Duyse had already taken a bite of her grilled cheese sandwich when she noticed something in the bread. It was the face of a woman—more specifically, the Virgin Mary—that was, she said later, "looking back at me." She placed the sandwich in a clear plastic box, surrounded it with cotton balls to protect it, and placed it on her nightstand, where the Virgin watched over her for the next decade. When word got out about Duyse's sacred sandwich, the Hollywood, Florida, resident discovered that she wasn't the only one who could see the face: The grilled cheese went viral, and in 2004, she sold it, missing bite and all, to a Las Vegas casino for $28,000.

It might seem strange to see the Virgin Mary in the burnt pattern of a grilled cheese, but in fact, it happens all the time: She's appeared in a pretzel, window glass, and a brain scan. People have found the face of Jesus in foods as diverse as tortillas, chapatis, and Cheetos. The phenomenon isn't reserved for religious iconography; Ringo Starr, the Beatles's drummer, has shown up in high-speed images of water drops bouncing off a lotus leaf, and Elvis has popped up everywhere, from potato chips to water stains. There is an entire Twitter account dedicated to the faces seen in mundane objects from stand mixers to coffee lids, and even a museum in Chichibu, Japan, near Tokyo, that houses more than 1700 rocks that look like human faces, including (you guessed it!) Elvis Presley's. People can discern faces in meaningless clouds, inkblots, the surface of the Moon, and the grille of their car—so much so that automobile designers consider how a new model's "face expression" could affect sales.

There's a name for this uncanny ability to see faces everywhere: pareidolia (roughly, from the Greek for "wrong shape").

beetle with coloring that looks like a face

Ian Jacobs, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Human brains are exquisitely attuned to perceiving faces—in fact, there's an entire region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is dedicated to it. Its functions are evident even from early childhood: Studies have shown that shortly after birth, babies display more interest in cartoon faces with properly placed features than in similar images where the features are scrambled.

The "face neurons" in people with healthy brains are so overactive that they scream FACE! in many situations where there are no actual faces to be found. Those sophisticated face-detection skills, combined with our brain's compulsion to extract meaning from the sensory chaos that surrounds us, is why we see faces where there aren't any. Typically these sightings are nothing more than our mind's interpretation of visual data, but some artists have purposely exploited our natural predisposition to see illusory faces: Salvador Dalí's Paranoiac Face features a woman's face comprised of a hut and seated villagers, and his Madonna of the Birds depicts the Virgin Mary's face composed of a flock of birds.

Don't worry—there's nothing wrong with you if you see faces in things. Pareidolia is an ordinary phenomenon, one that's widespread across people and cultures—but there are a variety of individual differences in human pareidolia. For example, researchers have found that women see faces in things more than men do, and proposed that the difference may be related to women's greater interest in social information, and their superior ability to decode emotions from facial expressions.

Others have found that paranormal and religious believers are more prone to pareidolia than skeptics and nonbelievers. Although believers and nonbelievers had equivalent sensitivity to faces, the paranormal and religious believers had lower thresholds for reporting that a face was present than nonbelievers did, possibly due to being more open to the suggestion that the images might contain faces. This finding could help explain the many apparitions of religious imagery in food items.

Pareidolia can be exacerbated in cases of fatigue and in some neurological diseases, such as Lewy body dementia (when protein deposits called Lewy bodies develop in nerve cells). On the flip side, when the fusiform gyrus is damaged due to a stroke or trauma, our ability to recognize faces is impaired. This rare condition is known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness. In extreme cases, prosopagnostic patients become unable to identify their own faces in the mirror, though they have no trouble recognizing objects other than faces.

It may not be a strictly human phenomenon either. Research has shown that rhesus monkeys see illusory facial features on inanimate objects such as toasters or sliced vegetables. It's not yet known whether any other species, particularly non-primates, are also receptive to pareidolia.

cheese that looks like a face

Mikhail Kryshen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Pareidolia extends beyond human likenesses: In 2007, a "monkey tree" in Singapore attracted thousands of visitors, who swore that a bizarrely shaped callus growing on a tree was a manifestation of either the Chinese deity Sun Wukong (also known as the Monkey King) or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Last year, the picture of a wooden board featuring three dark spots in the shape of a dog's face went viral on Twitter, with tens of thousands of retweets and numerous joking appeals to those knowledgeable in witchcraft to free the dog's soul from the piece of wood.

People have seen illusory faces in mountains, articles of clothing, domestic appliances, and many other improbable settings. In fact, given our neural circuitry, you could say it's hard not to see faces everywhere you look. Case in point: In 2011, two Canadian urologists said they saw the face of a man, contorted in a silent scream, in the scrotal ultrasound images of a patient affected with acute testicular pain.

A sick man's scrotum may or may not be the unlikeliest place where observant people have found a recognizable face, but the finding does demonstrate that the brain makes much ado about nothing. So maybe don't scrutinize your next grilled cheese sandwich too closely—or you may find it staring back at you.

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

8 Ways Science Can Boost Your Halloween Fun

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iStock

Halloween is all about embracing the supernatural, but science shouldn't entirely fall by the wayside during the spookiest of holidays. Here are a few ways it can actually improve your holiday, from making trick-or-treating easier to fooling your brain into thinking you're eating tasty treats even though you're nibbling on candy cast-offs.

1. Slow the decomposition of your Halloween jack-o'-lantern.

A Halloween display of five jack-o-lanterns
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You don't have to be an expert gardener to keep your jack-o'-lantern looking fresh all Halloween season long. While scouting out pumpkins, pick hard, unblemished ones and steer clear of those with watery dark spots. These splotches indicate frost damage.

Hold off on carving until right before Halloween so your gourds won't rot—but if you can't resist, try squirting their exteriors with lemon juice after you're done slicing and dicing. The acid inhibits pumpkin enzymes, which react with oxygen and cause browning. A light misting of bleach solution will help keep fungus at bay. Some apply vegetable oil or Vaseline to prevent shriveling and drying. We experimented with various techniques in this video.

For extra TLC, you might even want to bring your jack-o'-lanterns in at night if temperatures dip; if you live in a hot and humid area, extend its life by placing it in the fridge overnight. Try using glow sticks or LED lights instead of flesh-singeing candles.

2. Use apps to plan a treat-or-treating route.

Three children in Halloween costumes trick-or-treating
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Thanks to technology, trick-or-treaters (and their hungry adult companions) can now scout out which neighbors are doling out the best candy and which are sticking with Tootsie Rolls, apples, and toothbrushes. Simply download the app for Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network, to check out an interactive "treat map" that lets users tag whether their home is handing out treats, and what that treat is.

Since safety is far more important than sugar, guardians should also consider adding a tracking app to their arsenal come Halloween, especially if their kid's venturing out alone. The Find My Family, Friends, Phone app gives the real-time locations of trick-or-treaters, provides alerts for when they turn home, and also comes with a "panic" button that provides emergency contact details when pressed.

3. Optimize your candy's flavor (even if it's SweeTarts).

Hard candies and gummies strewn across a table
iStock

Not crazy about this year's Halloween loot? Fool yourself into thinking those black licorice pieces and peanut chews taste better than they actually do by eating them after you scarf down the chocolate and Sour Patch Kids. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, being aware that these items of candy are your very last candies actually tricks the brain into appreciating them more (and thus thinking they're tastier than they really are).

Meanwhile, a 2013 study from the same journal found that creating a candy-eating ritual enhances flavor and overall satisfaction. Nibble the ridged edges off a Reese's peanut butter cup before tackling the creamy center, sort the M&Ms by color, and take your time unwrapping a chocolate bar.

4. Create a DIY fog machine with carbon.

Dry ice in a glass bowl
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Save money at Party City by creating your own fog machine at home. When dropped in water, dry ice—or frozen carbon dioxide—creates a gas that's a combination of carbon dioxide and water vapor, but looks like the fog you'd see rolling through a haunted graveyard [PDF].

5. Eat sort-of-heart-healthy Halloween candy.

A stack of dark chocolate chunks on a dark stone background
iStock

Halloween candy isn't always bad for you. While shopping for this year's trick-or-treat bounty, steer clear of sugary confections and milk chocolate mini-bars. Opt for dark chocolate treats instead. Research suggests that our gut microbes ferment the antioxidants and fiber in cocoa, creating heart-healthy anti-inflammatory compounds. Plus, dark chocolate or cocoa also appears to help lower blood pressure for people with hypertension, decrease bad cholesterol, and stave off cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other benefits.

6. Analyze data on Halloween candy trends and give the people what they want.

Lollipops
5second/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to data science, you can make sure you're giving out the best treats on the block. Bulk candy retailer CandyStore.com combed through 10 years of data (2007 to 2016, with a particular focus on the months leading up to Halloween) to gauge America's top-selling sweets. They created an interactive map to display their results, which includes the top three most popular Halloween handouts in each state and Washington, D.C. Be prepared for plenty of stoop-side visitors and adorable photo ops.

7. Bake better Halloween treats with chemistry.

Frosted Halloween cookies shaped like ghosts and pumpkins
iStock

Cooking is essentially chemistry—and depending on your technique, you can whip up chewy, fluffy, or decadent Halloween treats according to taste.

Folding chunks of chilled butter into your dough will give you thick, cake-like cookies, as will swapping baking soda for baking powder. When butter melts, its water converts into gas, which leaves lots of tiny holes. If the butter flecks in question are colder and larger, they'll leave bigger air pockets. As for the baking powder, it produces carbon dioxide gas both when it's mixed into the dough and when it's heated. For an extra boost in texture, you can also try adding more flour.

Prefer chewier cookies? Start out with melted butter in the dough, and stick with plain old baking soda.

And for extra-fragrant and flavorful baked goods, opt to use dark sugars—like molasses, honey, and brown sugar—because they're filled with glucose and fructose instead of plain old sucrose. As cookies bake, they undergo two processes: caramelization, in which the sugar crystals liquefy into a brown soup; and the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between the dough's proteins and amino acids (flour, egg, etc.) and the reducing sugars that causes tasty browning.

8. Take deep breaths to stay calm in haunted houses.

A brown-haired woman in a red polka dot blouse standing with a frightened expression next to a spider web.
iStock

Halloween can be tough for people with anxiety or low thresholds for fear. While visiting a haunted house or watching a scary movie, remember to take deep breaths, which fends off the body's flight-or-fight response, and reframe your anxiety in your mind as "excitement." It's also a good idea to schedule spine-chilling activities after an activity that triggers feel-good endorphins—say, after a walk to check out your neighbors' awesome Halloween displays.

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