Seeing faces

This week’s post is inspired by some conversations I had over Halloween which got me thinking. Why are faces everywhere at this time of year (think carved pumpkins and ghost masks), and what makes them scary? Last year I wrote about the science behind horror movies and why we find things creepy. But what is it about some shapes carved into a pumpkin that makes us see a ‘face’, even though we know it is just an inanimate object?

Humans have an uncanny ability to see faces in almost anything, not just pumpkins. We see the images of celebrities in toast, add eyelashes to our car’s headlights and assign personalities to buildings (small windows make it look suspicious – google it if you don’t believe me). This phenomenon even has a name – pareidolia.

The brain is so good at identifying faces, there is even a part of the brain specialised for this very function. The fusiform face area is located in the fusiform gyrus in a part of the temporal cortex responsible for processing visual stimuli. Whilst not without controversy, evidence to support the existence of an area specialised for face processing has been shown in neuroimaging studies (Kanwisher et al, 1997) as well as in the condition of prosopagnosia, or face blindness (Farah et al, 1995). People with prosopagnosia are impaired at recognising whole faces, and can in fact be better at seeing scrambled or inverted forms instead.

As well as being an important area in recognising real faces, the fusiform face area is also thought to be involved in seeing these other types of illusory faces (Lui et al, 2014). This study used fMRI to measure activation in the fusiform face area whilst participants were shown random noise stimuli and were told to find either faces or letters, and found most activation in this area when participants were identifying faces in the patterns they were shown.

And why are these illusory faces creepy? One theory is that they look familiar, but there’s something not quite right about them. It is then this uncertainty that leads us to find some ghostly faces scary.

Thanks for reading – as ever please leave a comment if you liked this post, and let me know about any future topics you’d like to see covered on freudforthought!


Farah, M.J., Wilson, K.D., Drain, H.M. and Tanaka, J.R., 1995. The inverted face inversion effect in prosopagnosia: Evidence for mandatory, face-specific perceptual mechanisms. Vision research35(14), pp.2089-2093.

Kanwisher, N., McDermott, J. and Chun, M.M., 1997. The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception. Journal of neuroscience17(11), pp.4302-4311.

Liu, J., Li, J., Feng, L., Li, L., Tian, J. and Lee, K., 2014. Seeing Jesus in toast: neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex53, pp.60-77.

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

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