On the Science of Pareidolia

     In their 2017 publication called Characterizing the response to face pareidolia in human category-selective visual cortex, scientists Susan G Wardle, Kiley Seymour & Jessica Taubert aimed to study how human brains process face perception.

 They used this series of images for their study and described them thus:

     “We collected 56 photographs of naturally occurring examples of face pareidolia in objects such as food, accessories, and appliances. For each object with an illusory face, we found a similar image of the same category of object but without an illusory face. Importantly, this yoked image set of 56 images was matched for object content and visual features typical of the object category but did not contain any illusory faces.”

     Right from the out, I have to disagree with their set-up. I perceive creatures in most of these 112 images and the more interesting creatures are in the versions not meant to contain any faces. These scientists conducted their research on nine people – on whom they used MRI scanning to locate regional brain activity whilst the subjects were looking at the images. One participant was one of the authors of the publication and another moved so much during the MRI scans that her input had to be discounted for this study. For whatever reason, all nine participants were women. Whether or not any of these participants are prone to marked pareidolia is not stated within the publication.

     Glancing at the 112 images used, here’s some of what I perceive in the images described as non-pareidolic:

     There’s a caricatured human profile on the individual fried egg, fetus on the coffee froth, cheeky mouse face in the skewed view of an aeroplane cowling, nosebowl and propeller. I see faces in both chocolate chip cookies and both potatoes. There’s a droopy-eyed, long-nosed face in the cut mushroom (the image showing both halves of a mushroom that was cut). Olive eyes in the martini, a squished cleft-lipped face on the burger, and the reflection on the aubergine is a dog-faced slug. The fan heater is an upside-down owl, aeroplane fin is a shark and there’s a distressed creature stuck inside the washing machine. The dripping kitchen tap is a snail and the mop has a creature peering out from the top and another one underneath.

     Without dwelling on them, there are hidden creatures in almost every image of this experiment and I think that’s a crucial aspect that the scientists did not take into account during their study. Pareidolia relates not only to perception of hidden faces in inanimate objects and unusual places but also to hidden creatures. This is why I’ve named my business Hidden Creatures Art, not Hidden Faces Art. I focus on depth of perception in my work more than just superficially spotting two eyes and a nose or mouth and calling that a face.

     It’s been, in a way, helpful to step back from drawing for a bit and to consider other peoples’ perception of pareidolia during that time. On balance, I’ve gained reassurance that what I’m doing is worth sharing, regardless that these three scientists describe pareidolia in their report as “natural errors of face detection”. To err is human…

     So, signing out for now. There’s a queue of drawings to be done : )

Any guesses which real creature the sketch is of, which features above in this post?

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