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.

Great White Sharks May Have Led to Megalodons' Extinction

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iStock.com/cdascher

The megalodon has been extinct for millions of years, but the huge prehistoric shark still fascinates people today. Reaching 50 feet long, it's thought to be the largest shark to ever stalk the ocean, but according to a new study, the predator may have been brought down by familiar creature: the great white shark.

As Smithsonian reports, the analysis, published in the journal PeerJ, finds that the megalodon may have vanished from seas much earlier that previously believed. Past research showed that the last megalodons died roughly 2.6 million years ago, a time when other marine life was dying off in large numbers, possibly due to a supernova blasting Earth with radiation at the end of the Pliocene epoch.

A team of paleontologists and geologists revisited the fossils that this conclusion was originally based on for their new study. They found that many of the megalodon remains had been mislabeled, marked with imprecise dates, or dated using old techniques. After reassessing the specimens, they concluded that the species had likely gone extinct at least 1 million years earlier than past research indicates.

If the megalodon vanished 3.6 million years ago rather than 2.6 million years ago, it wasn't the victim of supernova radiation. One known factor that could explain the loss of the 13 million-year-old apex predator at this time is the rise of a new competitor: the great white shark. This predator came on the scene around the same time as the megalodon's decline, and though a full-grown great white shark is less than half the size of a mature megalodon, the species still would have been a stressor. Adult great whites likely competed with juvenile megalodons, and with the megalodon's favorite prey—small whales—becoming scarce at this time, this may have been enough to wipe the megalodons from existence.

Even if great white sharks eventually beat megalodons for dominance in the oceans, the megalodon's status as one of the most fearsome predators of all time shouldn't be contested. The giant sharks had 7-inch teeth and a bite stronger than that of a T. rex.

[h/t Smithsonian]

From Squatty Potty to Squat-N-Go: The Best Toilet Stool for Every Bathroom

iStock.com/eldemir
iStock.com/eldemir

In 2015, Squatty Potty's bathroom stool plopped into the popular conscience with a viral commercial that featured a unicorn joyfully pooping out a conveyor belt's worth of ice cream. The video racked up more than 35.9 million views on YouTube and reportedly caused a 600 percent jump in sales. "The stool for better stools" was a hit.

Now, it's a hit with the medical community, too. New research out of Ohio State University finds that the toilet stool—which aims to relax the puborectalis muscle and straighten out the rectum, making it easier to poop—really does help people who strain to empty their bowels. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology's March 2019 issue, only involved 52 people, but it's the first clinical research into the Squatty Potty, and the results were very positive—71 percent of participants said they experienced faster bowel movements after using the stool for a month. A full 90 percent said they experienced less straining than before.

Since the Squatty Potty debuted, the company has inspired plenty of copycats, as well as launching a number of other official Squatty Potty design iterations targeted at every type of user. Here are the best toilet stool options for every bathroom.

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1. If You're Hesitant to Commit: The Squatty Potty Original

At just $25, the original Squatty Potty is a great entry-level option that will allow you to try out the system without sinking a ton of money into it. (And it's a whole lot cheaper than an endless supply of Metamucil.) The white plastic isn't the most elevated decor option, but it's durable, easy to clean, and relatively unobtrusive. It's available in a 7-inch-tall version for standard toilets or a 9-inch-tall version for comfort-height porcelain thrones. If you're not sure how tall your toilet is, the company makes an adjustable height Squatty Potty that can be configured to fit anywhere.

Buy it on Amazon, from Squatty Potty's website for $25, or at these other retailers:

2. If Your Bathroom is Tiny: The Squatty Potty Curve

The original Squatty Potty can be a bit clunky, but a newer version offers all the health benefits without taking up as much space. The Curve has a thinner footprint so that it doesn't stick out quite so far from under your toilet, but still has just enough room for your feet. The 7-inch stool comes in white, pink, black, and gray.

Buy it for $25 on Squatty Potty's website.

3. If You Text on the Toilet: The Keeney Bathroom Stool

A white and blue Keeney toilet stool
Keeney, Amazon

Keeney's toilet stool offers a few unusual features. For one, it has a storage bin designed to keep your wet wipes close at hand. More importantly, it's designed to hold up more than just your feet—it has a smartphone/tablet holder, too. Though toilet stools are designed to make your bowel movements speedier, if you're the kind of person who likes to spend a lot of time on the can, you can also tuck your smartphone into the built-in groove in the stool designed to keep your screen at optimal viewing angles. Whether you're watching Netflix or looking at Tinder, it offers a hands-free option that you're not going to find on any brand-name Squatty Potty. Ergonomically, it's also got slightly angled footrests designed to put you in the optimal pooping position.

Buy it on Amazon for $21.

4. If You're Into Minimalist Design: The Squatty Potty Slim

Great bowel movements and great interior design don't have to be mutually exclusive. Squatty Potty's high-fashion option may be pricier, but it doesn't have the medical-device vibes of the original model, either. Designed for small, urban apartments, it's a bit bigger than the Curve but a lot more aesthetically pleasing. The teak finish is great if you're going for a Scandinavian minimalist vibe, while the acrylic glass Slim Ghost model has an artsy mid-century modern look.

Buy the Slim Teak or the Slim Ghost on Squatty Potty's website for $60 and $80, respectively, or on Amazon for $80 or $83.

5. If You Need to Go on the Go: Squat-N-Go Bamboo X Toilet Stool

While Squatty Potty does make a portable version of its bathroom stool (the cleverly named Porta-Squatty), the most convenient travel stool is made by a competitor. Squat-N-Go's foldable footstool comes in two different pieces for easy storage and portability. The two bamboo platforms essentially act as stilts, propping up your feet separately. They offer the most customizable fit, with 7-inch, 8-inch, and 9-inch heights and the ability to place each footstool anywhere around the toilet, at any angle. When you're done, they fold down to just an inch tall and can be stowed in the included travel bag.

Buy it on Amazon for $40 or at these other retailers:

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