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

iStock
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.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

Bombshell, Victoria’s Secret’s Bestselling Fragrance, Also Happens to Repel Mosquitoes

Dids, Pexels
Dids, Pexels

People love Bombshell, the best-selling fragrance at Victoria’s Secret, for its summery blend of fruity and floral notes. Not everyone is a huge fan, though: As Quartz reports, the perfume is surprisingly good at warding off mosquitoes. In fact, it’s almost as effective as DEET insect repellent, according to the results of a 2014 experiment by researchers at New Mexico State University.

Researchers took 10 products that are commercially available and tested their ability to repel two different species of mosquitoes: the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), both of which are known to transmit diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever. In doing so, volunteers subjected their own flesh to the test by placing their hands on either side of a Y-shaped tube containing the blood-sucking critters. One hand was covered in a synthetic rubber glove, while the other hand was sprayed with one of the products but otherwise left bare. Researchers recorded which tunnel the mosquitoes flew to, and how long they avoided the other end.

Three of the products contained DEET, while four products didn’t. In addition, there were two fragrances (including Bombshell) and one vitamin B1 skin patch. The DEET products were the most effective, but Bombshell proved to be nearly as good, keeping mosquitoes at bay for roughly two hours.

“There was some previous literature that said fruity, floral scents attracted mosquitoes, and to not wear those,” Stacy Rodriquez, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “It was interesting to see that the mosquitoes weren’t actually attracted to the person that was wearing the Victoria’s Secret perfume—they were repelled by it.”

This isn’t the first time a perfume has had an unintended effect on the natural world. It turns out that tigers are obsessed with Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men cologne, partly because it contains a synthetic version of civetone, a pheromone that's secreted by glands located near a civet’s anus. This substance was once used to create musky fragrances, but nowadays the scent is mostly reproduced in a lab. Still, the fake stuff must be pretty convincing, because big cats go crazy when they catch a whiff of it.

[h/t Quartz]

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