Friday, October 28, 2016

Halloween Countdown Day 5: Pareidolia

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.This is often manifested as something like seeing jesus in a doggy butthole or a face on the surface of mars:

Shadow figures and ghosts have both been attributed to pareidolia and there are lots of websites dedicated to this phenomenon with many great examples (Photography and the paranormal (Paranormal Field Investigators), Pareidolia (Skepdic)).

Our moderator @AnLand found a great example of pareidolia earlier this year on Chimp&See:

So the big question is - why do we have this ability? 
Dr. Sinha of M.I.T. says that whether the hair-trigger response to faces is innate or learned, it represents a critical evolutionary adaptation...“The information faces convey is so rich   — not just regarding another person’s identity,   but also their mental state, health and other factors,” he said. “It’s extremely beneficial for the brain to become good at the task of face recognition and not to be very strict in its inclusion criteria. The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.” (from Faces, Faces Everywhere" in The New York Times)
But it's not just us! At the most recent Chimpanzee Symposium: Chimps in ContextDr. Masaki Tomonaga presented his latest findings that chimpanzees also share this ability:
Abstract -How chimpanzees perceive faces: an update after nine years of investigation  Faces play a special role in primate communication and social cognition, and as such they are processed in a different manner to other types of visual stimuli. We have been studying perception and cognition of faces in chimpanzees from the standpoint of comparative cognitive science. We initially reported some results at the last Chimpanzee Symposium (“The Mind of the Chimpanzee, 2007) and now, nine years later, I present the latest results from our continuing research project. First, as in humans, chimpanzees process facial stimuli in a holistic manner. When we see a non-facial object containing similar spatial configurations to faces (top-heavy patterns), we readily perceive it as a ‘face’. This phenomenon, often called ‘pareidolia’, was also observed in chimpanzees. In addition, when the spatial configuration of a face-like object was manipulated, the chimpanzee’s performances deteriorated, compared to when the same manipulation was applied to other types of stimuli. Secondly, chimpanzees tried to find facial configurations in noise patterns in which facial images did not exist. These results further support the notion that face processing in chimpanzees is holistic. Thirdly, faces include important social information such as gaze.  In a visual search task, in which chimpanzees were required to detect attentional state an attentive state, they showed quicker detection of an inattentive state than humans.
Perhaps the most halloweeny, primate-related example of pareidolia is the monkey orchid whose scientific name is Dracula simia! You can see more pareidolic orchids here :)

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