Face It: My Experience With Facial Pareidolia
Pareidolia is a condition whereby one perceives familiar patterns in inanimate objects. One of the most common examples is seeing faces. This is known as facial pareidolia. Once thought to be the result of a mental illness or an overactive imagination, more recent research suggests that it may actually be a sign of a well-functioning brain.
The authors of a paper called "Seeing Jesus in Toast," which documents a study of facial pareidolia, put it this way: "The tendency to detect faces in ambiguous visual information is perhaps highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face."
It can be argued that once you start looking for faces in objects you start seeing them. For most people if someone points out a face that they see in an object, and it even remotely resembles a face, the other person will see it, too. Everyone readily identifies two circles with a slash below, such as with the happy face symbol, as a face.
This is not what it is like for a person with facial pareidolia, however. For a person with this condition, faces appear everywhere—in all manner of inanimate objects, in anything that has a pattern, in any play of light and shadow. They cannot help seeing faces. Most of the time they wish they could stop seeing them. I know, because I have had this condition my entire life.
Growing up with Facial Pareidolia
I have never seen the face of Jesus looking back at me from a slice of toast, nor Elvis in an oil slick in the driveway, but I have seen a lot of faces in a great deal of unusual places over the past fifty years or so.
I remember as a young child seeing faces in everything from the pattern in the tiles on the kitchen floor to the play of light and shadow on a wrinkled bed sheet. Faces like the ones in the bed sheet were, of course, temporary due to the fact that bed sheets were constantly moved and rearranged, and the position of light and shadow were always changing, but the faces like the one in the kitchen tiles were more or less permanent and became like friends to the young me who saw them everyday.
The one in the kitchen tiles I remember as resembling a small child that for some reason I recall as being around my own age even though I saw it over the course of several years and there is no way that it could have aged along with me. There were several others that I regularly saw around the house and actually looked forward to seeing, including my favorite, a crescent shaped face in profile that I called the man in the moon, that was formed by some slight damage to my bedroom wall, that I used to talk to on a regular bases. I considered these friends.
Along with these there were also some that I did not consider friends, and that actually scared me. There was one in particular that existed on the tile in our shower that just terrified me. He had long hair, a big nose, a large, bushy beard, and looked extremely angry and dangerous. This guy would be staring at me every time I took a bath. I used to hang a face cloth from the taps so that it dangled down and covered the menacing face.
For the most part though I enjoyed the company of these constant companions. I also learned early on to keep them to myself as I was the only one seeing them. I recall trying to point them out to my parents a couple of times but they thought there was something wrong with me and hoped I would grow out of it, which I quickly led them to believe I had. Given their reaction I choose not to share anything about it with my siblings.
Thanks a Lot, Charles Dickens
Then when I was about eight or nine years old everything about having facial pareidolia changed for me. It went from being a fun little secret that I had to something that terrified me. One Christmas Eve I was watching an old black and white version of a Christmas Carol on TV, the one with Alistair Sim, when I saw the face of the seven years dead Bob Marley materialize in Scrooge's door knocker. For the next few years after I thought that all these faces that I was seeing were ghosts that were for some reason sent to haunt me. It was a terrible and frightening experience. During this time I tried so very hard to stop seeing the faces but could not.
Sometime in my early teens I just stopped believing that these were other worldly beings sent for my reclamation and understood that, for some reason, I just had an uncanny ability to see faces. It stopped being frightening, though I was still startled from time to time when unexpectedly confronted by an unpleasant face in the steam on the bathroom mirror, or in the folds of my bedroom curtains at dusk. I actually began to enjoy it again. I didn't go back to thinking of them as friends or start talking to them again, but I did, and still do, like seeing them, even the occasional frightening ones.
The Man in The Mountain
Sometimes faces can be so obvious that everyone, even if it takes some pointing out for some, can see them. Such is the case with the "Man in the Mountain", a famous face in the cliff side just outside of Corner Brook, on Newfoundland's west coast. The old man looking down over the Humber River and the highway is something of a tourist attraction.
The first time I saw it I was 12 or 13 years old on a family vacation. My father pulled over in the little viewing area that was there so that we could all have a look. There were a number of other people there as well, everyone trying to see it. I could hear all sorts of comments: "Do you see it?" "No, do you?" "Where is it?" "Is that it?" "There it is, I see it." And on and on. I had only one question which I kept to myself: "Which of these faces do they mean?"
To Share or Not to Share...
There were times over the years when I have been tempted to share, and point out to somebody else a face I was seeing, especially if I thought it was really easy to see or looked like someone familiar, but I always ended up deciding against it. Even though I have had this all my life it was only in the last few years that I found out that this condition has a name, and that many other people have it as well. Even with this knowledge I was reluctant to share. I guess the secret is out now.
Were you able to see many or even all of the faces in the pictures in this article without them being pointed out to you? Do you see faces in all sorts of places and patterns—in reflections, and in the play between light and shadow? There is a very good chance that you have facial pareidolia. You also now know that you are not alone. Not only do you not have to hide it, but you can now brag about it because it means that you are most likely in possession of a healthy and well-adapted brain.
Liu, Jiangang, et al. "Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia." Cortex. 2014 Apr; 53: 60–77.
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© 2017 Stephen Barnes