#iseefaces: why people see faces in inanimate objects

Some years ago, this image popped up in my Facebook feed.  It made me smile, so I saved a copy to the desktop of my work PC, for purposes of private amusement at a later date.  Eventually, as with anything you see all the time, I stopped noticing it was there and pretty much forgot about it.

Some time later, a member of the university’s IT department came to do some work on my computer – I forget what – and opened the GIF saved on my desktop.  She had obviously never seen what had, by that time, become a fairly well-known meme, and laughed and laughed, until tears ran down her face and she needed to hold on my desk to keep from falling over.  Through gasps for breath, she managed to choke out, “it… it looks like an… an… octopuuuuss…” before collapsing once again into helpless laughter.

Of course, it doesn’t really look that much like an octopus – this is an octopus:

A common octopus amongst rocks
An octopus

So why do we look at a coat hook and see an inebriated cephalopod?  Why is the perenially popular Faces in Things Twitter account full of people who think inanimate objects are looking at them?  Why do the plug sockets in the office kitchen always look so astonished to see me, even though the first thing I do on nearly every working day is go into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee?

The answer seems to be that the human brain is hardwired to see faces: the phenomenon is called ‘pareidolia’ and is a result of the brain’s habit of presenting a prediction of what it thinks the eyes are going to see.  The habit probably evolved to help early humans spot people and potential threats – it is worth scaring yourself nine times imagining that a tree is looking at you if, on the tenth occasion, you correctly identify the person staring at you with malice aforethought in time for you to run away.

Nowadays, the ability seems to have evolved further, with its main purpose apparently being the creation of sharable web content – and recognising when our morning coffee is pleased to see us.

A cup of coffee with froth giving the appearance of a smiling face
I’m very pleased to see you, too.

Source and further reading: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140730-why-do-we-see-faces-in-objects


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