top of page

Pareidolia: The Phenomenon Behind Seeing Faces in Ordinary Objects


\per-ˌī-ˈdō-lē-ə , -ˈdōl-yə \


: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

The scientific explanation for some people is pareidolia, or the human ability to see shapes or make pictures out of randomness. Think of the Rorschach inkblot test.


Whether a dirty mop, a simple fruit or any random stuff, when a person spot a pattern especially faces they tend to put meaning to inanimate object. And people are constantly spotting what they think to be Jesus' face in burnt toast and a variety of other (so many) everyday meals.

Facial Pareidolia is the technical term for the phenomena. Scientists at the University of Sydney discovered that humans not only notice faces in ordinary things but that our brains also analyze them for emotional expression in the same way that real faces are processed, rather than dismissing them as false detections. This universal mechanism may have evolved in response to the requirement to swiftly determine whether someone is a friend or adversary. In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Sydney team revealed their results.

Lead author David Alais, of the University of Sydney, told The Guardian: We are such a sophisticated social species, and face recognition is very important … You need to recognize who it is, is it family, is it a friend or foe, what are their intentions and emotions? Faces are detected incredibly fast. The brain seems to do this using a kind of template-matching procedure. So if it sees an object that appears to have two eyes above a nose above a mouth, then it goes, 'Oh I'm seeing a face.' It’s a bit fast and loose, and sometimes it makes mistakes, so something that resembles a face will often trigger this template match.”

For years, Alais has been fascinated by these and similar issues. In a 2016 publication published in Scientific Reports, for example, he and several colleagues drew on previous research utilizing quick sequences of faces that showed that perception of facial identity, as well as attractiveness, is skewed toward recently viewed faces. Alais et al. created a binary task that resembled the selection interface found on online dating websites and apps (such as Tinder), where users swipe left or right to indicate whether they find potential partners' profile photographs appealing or unattractive. Many sensory qualities, including as orientation, facial expression and beauty, and perceived slimness, were found to be routinely biased to the right.

This was followed by a publication published in the Journal of Vision in 2019 that expanded on that experimental approach to art enjoyment. We don't evaluate each painting we see in a museum or gallery on its own merits, according to Alais and his co-authors. Instead, we're prone to the "contrast effect," and we have the same serial-dependence bias when it comes to art. If we see a painting after seeing another attractive painting, we rate it higher, and if the prior painting was similarly less appealing, we rank it lower.

The next step was to look at the specific brain mechanisms that allow us to "read" social information from other people's faces. Alais recognized the phenomenon of face pareidolia as being linked, "A striking feature of these objects is that they not only look like faces, they can even convey a sense of personality or social meaning," he said.

Facial perception is more than just the placement of the mouth, nose, and eyes, which are universal to all human faces. Although our brains have evolved to recognize universal patterns, reading social information involves the ability to discern whether someone is happy, furious, or sad, as well as whether they are paying attention to us. According to a report published last year in the journal Psychological Science, Alais' group designed a sensory adaption experiment, which proved that humans do indeed process facial pareidolia in the same manner we do with real faces.

The sample size for this current study is obviously small: 17 university students who all completed practice trials with eight actual faces and eight pareidolia images prior to the studies. (The results of the trial were not documented). The actual trials employed 40 genuine faces and 40 pareidolia images that ranged from angry to happy and were divided into four categories: high angry, low angry, low happy, and high happy. During the trials, subjects were shown each image briefly before being asked to score the emotional expression on a scale of furious to cheerful.

The first experiment was created to see if there were any serial effects. The subjects went through a series of 320 trials, with each image being shown eight times in random order. Half of the participants completed the section first with genuine faces and then with pareidolia images. The other half of the participants acted in the opposite manner. The second experiment was identical, except the trials included both genuine faces and pareidolia images at random. Each participant rated an image eight times, and the averaged findings were used to calculate a mean assessment of the image's expression.

“What we found was that actually these pareidolia images are processed by the same mechanism that would normally process emotion in a real face,” Alais told The Guardian.

“You are somehow unable to totally turn off that face response and emotion response and see it as an object. It remains simultaneously an object and a face.” The findings revealed that respondents were able to accurately score the pareidolia images for facial expression. Serial reliance bias was also present in the subjects, just as it was in Tinder users or art gallery visitors. That is, an object with a joyful or angry illusory face will be viewed as having a more comparable expression to the one before it. When real faces and pareidolia images were intermingled, as in the second experiment, the serial reliance was even stronger when subjects saw the pareidolia images first. According to Alais et al., this indicates that the two share an underlying mechanism, implying that "expression processing is not tightly bound to human facial features,"

"This 'cross-over' condition is important, as it shows that the same underlying facial expression process is involved, regardless of image type," said Alais. "This means that seeing faces in clouds is more than a child's fantasy. When objects look compellingly facelike, it is more than an interpretation: They really are driving your brain's face-detection network. And that scowl or smile—that's your brain's facial expression system at work. For the brain, fake or real, faces are all processed the same way."


About the Writers:

Maina Zaina, Writer and a Virtual Assistant at AVCreativity Studio. She enjoys media entertainment and is an avid fan of "K-Wave". She loves her job because she is exposed to different types of entertainment. She also believes in the saying "If you want to be successful, don't seek success - seek competence, empowerment; do nothing short of the best that you can do" by Jaggi Vasudev

Pamela Elizabeth, Editor-in-Chief at AVCreativity Studio. Earned a Bachelor’s Degree of Secondary Education Major in English. She loves going on little adventures alongside reading good books. She is enthusiastic about her work and ensures that her clients receive the finest service possible.

23 views0 comments
bottom of page