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Fakeface

Pareidolia

Pareidolia (pronounced pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.

Evolutionary explanation

It is thought that there may be some kind of evolutionary advantage to this malfunctioning of the perceptual apparatus, particularly with regard to our tendency to see faces in commonplace objects. Carl Sagan hypothesized that as a survival technique, human beings are “hard-wired” from birth to identify the human face. While this allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility it can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. The evolutionary advantages of being able to identify friend from foe with split-second accuracy are numerous; prehistoric (and even modern) men and women who accidentally identify an enemy as a friend could face deadly consequences for this mistake. This is only one among many evolutionary pressures responsible for the development of the modern facial recognition capability of modern humans.

In 2009 a magnetoencephalography study found that objects incidentally perceived as faces evoke an early activation in the ventral fusiform cortex, at a time and location similar to that evoked by faces, whereas other common objects do not evoke such activation. This activation is similar to a slightly earlier peak seen for images of real faces. The authors suggest that face perception evoked by face-like objects is a relatively early process, and not a late cognitive reinterpretation phenomenon.

This study helps to explain why people identify the line drawing to the left as a “face” so quickly and without hesitation; precognitive processes are activated by the “face-like” object, which alert the observer to the emotional state and identity of the subject – even before the conscious mind begins to process – or even receive – the information. The “stick figure face,” despite its simplicity, conveys mood information (in this case, disappointment or mild unhappiness); it would be just as simple to draw a stick figure face that would be perceived (by most people) as hostile and aggressive. This robust and subtle capability is the result of eons of natural selection favoring people most able to quickly identify the mental state, for example, of threatening people, thus providing the individual an opportunity to flee and fight another day. In other words, processing this information subcortically (and therefore subconsciously) – before it is passed on to the rest of the brain for detailed processing – accelerates judgment and decision making when alacrity is paramount. This ability, though highly specialized for the processing and recognition of human emotions also functions to determine the demeanor of wildlife.

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