Why your mind can see faces where they don’t exist


One hand holds two halves of a geode that strikingly resembles the face of the character of Sesame Street Cookie Monster.

Source: Mike Bowers / Facebook

A geode that bears a striking resemblance to a beloved character from Sesame Street has taken the internet by storm. What’s really amazing, though, isn’t what happened to the boulder to make it look like Cookie Monster, it’s what goes on in our mind to make it look like Cookie Monster. think it looks like Cookie Monster.

The experience of recognizing a familiar image in an unrelated object is called pareidolia (pronounced by-eye-DOH-lee-ah), Greek para- meaning “abnormal” and eidolon which means “image”. Examples of pareidolia include finding shapes in clouds, seeing a rabbit in the moon, and interpreting a colon next to a support such as a smiling face. 🙂

Pareidolia is an error of the mind, which is part of a human tendency to perceive patterns under random circumstances. Pareidolia of the face – spotting faces in objects that don’t have one – is its most common form and the one behind our Cookie Monster geode fun.

What are the causes of pareidolia?

Our brains are hardwired to find and remember patterns.

This talent for pattern recognition is not a luxury: it is essential to our survival. Without it, we would be incapable of the most basic functions, from sorting out the different sensations that strike our nervous system, to creating mind maps, avoiding dangers and identifying food.

Pattern recognition also enables our higher-order abilities like reasoning, speaking, decision-making, and problem-solving, to the point that some neuroscientists believe that superior pattern processing is. the characteristic that most distinguishes the human brain from the brains of other animals.

Joel Muniz / Unsplash

A group of women walk down an alley, smiling for the camera.

Source: Joel Muniz / Unsplash

Face detection, in particular, is a human specialty. Two regions of the human brain – the fusiform zone of the face and the occipital zone of the face – are devoted to it, and many other parts of the brain.

Evolution has devoted much of our neural wiring to identifying faces because humans are such social animals. We rely on the people around us for protection, information and collaboration, so it is beneficial for us to be able to quickly recognize if someone is a friend or an enemy.

Having such a switched facial recognition system, however, has its drawbacks. We have whole swathes of neurons just waiting for the opportunity to identify a face, any face. Sometimes they have duds, activating when there are no real faces present.

These misidentifications happen in the blink of an eye – only 170 ms – and we have no conscious control over them. This is why it is so difficult to “de-see” the illusion of a face even though we know it is only an accident of light and shadow.

Cookie Monsters Everywhere

With pareidolia, the same faces tend to appear over and over again. Search the web and you’ll find that spotting Cookie Monster in a random assortment of items is a pretty common occurrence. Why is that?

Although we were born with the neurological framework of pattern recognition, it must be filled by experience. Take facial recognition: a blind person who acquires sight late in life has the regions of the brain needed to detect faces, but still needs a few weeks of real world view before you can start to identify human faces and distinguish people.

The specific patterns we see in our environment are further shaped by our culture and background. When we experience facial pareidolia, we often match the shapes we see with mental models of faces that we already know. For a pious Catholic, this could be a bearded Jesus or a veiled Virgin Mary. For a North American kid in the 70s, 80s or 90s, on the other hand, it could be a blurry blue Muppet.

We might be inclined to spot Cookie Monster’s face “in the wild” because it’s so simple and has a very recognizable color scheme. In the examples posted online, two whitish round circles over a blue area or an oblong shape with a large dark space in the middle seem to sound the Cookie Monster alarm bells in our minds.

Take a look at the images below for more examples of Cookie Monster pareidolia.

Two paper towel rolls on a blue shelf:

the hanged man / Reddit

Source: Hangman / Reddit

White rolls and blue packages on a flatbed truck:

TheSpacePope17 / Reddit

Source: TheSpacePope17 / Reddit

Two round markers on a large drainage opening on a river:

emileif / Reddit

Source: emileif / Reddit

Ice and snow on a forest stream:

spacejockey8 / Reddit

Source: spacejockey8 / Reddit

Cooking pasta in a pot with a round pattern formed of bubbles:

Kevlar Yarmulke / Reddit

Source: Kevlar Yarmulke / Reddit

The recent viral sensation isn’t even the first geode compared to Cookie Monster:

aruffone / Reddit

A blue geode with two round markings resembling googly eyes and a wide opening resembling a smiling mouth.

Source: aruffone / Reddit

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