News and Tribune

July 19, 2013

STAWAR: Faces: the facts

Local columnist

— One of the advantages of having grandchildren is being able to go to a cartoon movie like Monsters University without embarrassment, which is exactly what my wife Diane and I did last weekend. Our four grandchildren really liked the movie, which is not surprising, since they are a rather undiscriminating lot, and like almost everything they see.

Along with Monsters University, Pixar also showed a short feature entitled “The Blue Umbrella,” written and directed by German-born filmmaker Saschka Unseld. Using photo-realistic animation, an evening rush hour is magically transformed when it begins to rain. Pipes, awnings, gutters, and mail boxes all come to life. Our 6-year-old grandson wasn’t all that enchanted by this. He declared it “scary” and I agreed. I prefer my rain gutters to keep their eyes closed and their mouths shut.

In this creepy setting, a blue umbrella falls in love with a red one. It was your basic boy-umbrella-meets-girl-umbrella plot, but the love story took a backseat to the leering gutters and smirking mail slots. To find inspiration for their characters, Unseld and his production assistants photographed thousands of inanimate objects in the streets of San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Paris. Most of the objects brought to life, have aspects that most people would identify as representing rudimentary facial features, such as eyes, a mouth, nose, etc.

Humans are biologically driven to make meaning of the world about them. “Apophenia” (also called patternicity) is the term for the tendency for people to try to find meaningful patterns in meaningless stimuli. “Pareidolia” is a subclass of this phenomena, in which a vague and random stimulus is perceived as something highly significant, such as a face. Seeing shapes in clouds, the man in the moon, finding religious images in everyday objects, and hearing hidden messages on recordings are common examples.

During the Middle Ages images seen in natural objects were known as “Lusus Naturae,” or “Jokes of Nature.” Apophenia was originally thought to be related to mental illness. A variation of this term was used to describe the disturbed thinking seen at the onset of schizophrenia. Recognizing familiar shapes or images in inanimate things is quite normal, who hasn’t seen an amazing potato chip or a Cheeto. In some forms of schizophrenia, however, the individual perceives such things persistently and attributes special significance to them. Eventually this interferes with normal thought processes to the point of becoming obsessional and delusional.

Seeing faces in inanimate objects seems to be a special case of pareidolia. According to the late Carl Sagan, our natural expertise in recognizing faces may have evolutionary roots. In his book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” he wrote: “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains.” Sagan believed that babies who had difficulty recognizing faces, smiled back less often, and subsequently were less attached to their parents and less likely to thrive.

Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance artist and inventor, was well aware of the pareidolia phenomena. In the 1400s he wrote: “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones…. you will be able to see in it a resemblance to ... strange expressions of faces ....” Most of the ceilings in our house have a “rosebud” texture finish and if I stare at it long enough I can began to see just what da Vinci described — various faces and expressions. I have often thought that I should go and copy the image down, but like a dream upon awakening if I try, the image evaporates. Occasionally when I am looking our ceiling, late in the evening before falling asleep, I see some images that are a little frightening. It reminds me of the old quote, “During the day I don’t believe in ridiculous things like ghosts and spooks. At night I’m a little more open minded.”

Religious manifestations of pareidolia are also quite common. In recent years people have reported seeing the shape or faces of religious figures in all sorts of objects including moldy shower curtains, cut wood, on the wool of a sheep, window frost, the inside of potato and an orange and even on a piece of toast. I think my favorite is the cinnamon bun that is said to look like Mother Teresa, also known as the “Nun in a Bun.”

Whether they are true miracles, mind tricks, or jokes of nature, pareidolic religious images can have significant impact on individuals and communities and generate strong feelings. When we lived in Florida, one day in 1996, colors suddenly appeared on the windows of the Seminole Finance Corp. building in Clearwater. Many people said the image formed by the colors resembled the Virgin Mary. Within a year nearly a half a million people visited the building. In 1998 Cincinnati-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries bought the building and renamed it “Our Lady of Clearwater.” Over the years since then, a declining number of pilgrims visited the building, many praying for healing and personal miracles. The image was defaced twice, once in 1997 when a liquid was thrown on it (with no discernible results) and again in March of 2004 when a vandal successfully smashed three panes of glass that made up the upper portion of the image. I was always surprised by how differently people could perceive this image.

There is some evidence that faith may be related to pareidolia. Scientists from the University of Helsinki conducted a study to determine what types of people are most likely to experience pareidolia and they found that people who are religious or believe strongly in the supernatural are most likely to see faces in lifeless objects and landscapes. Believers consistently found more meaningful patterns in ambiguous pictures and had a lower criteria for believing they saw a face.

Doris Tsao, a neuroscientist at the University of Bremen in Germany, used magnetic resonance imaging to determine the specific brain areas that are activated when Macaw monkeys were presented with stimuli that included faces. She discovered that three regions of the brain’s temporal lobe were strongly attuned to faces, as if the monkey’s had “face radar.” She also found that these areas activated in response to objects that only mildly looked like faces. She believes that cloud formations, cinnamon rolls and landscape features may occasionally set off a false alarm, if they only have enough resemblance to an actual face.

I only hope the next short subject we see when we go the movies is something less creepy — maybe something simple like a cat chasing a mouse, or maybe a big square yellow sponge with a human face.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at