What do you see in this picture?

Why we spot faces where none exist. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Reminder: Our next Understandably Live is today at 4 pm Eastern. We’ll be talking with Liz Steblay, founder and chief advocate of one of our valued sponsors: PICA: the Professional Independent Consultants of America. (Free subscribers will recognize PICA as today’s sponsor.)

We’ll talk about consulting, going into business for yourself, and finding community. As long as we’re doing this: If you’ve considered advertising on Understandably, but wanted to ask some questions before doing so, you’ll have a chance to do that, too.

Sign up below. I’ll send a calendar invitation with the link about 30 minutes before it starts.

Understandably Live: Liz Steblay of PICA


Well, hello there.

(Kate Sullivan has the reins for the top essay today…)

In 2004, Diane Duyser of Florida sold a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich on eBay for $28,000.

No, it wasn’t crammed with 30-year aged cheese from rare Himalayan sheep or made on bread baked from grain eaten by Napoleon. 

Instead, it fetched that price because it supposedly looked a bit like the Virgin Mary. (Maybe. If you squinted.)

The phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects, called facial pareidolia, is pretty common—70% or more of us have experienced it, according to various studies, although leveraging it to sell your snacks on eBay isn’t as popular as it once was.

(Sadly, I don’t think the portrait of Bill Nye I found in my oatmeal this morning will take care of my retirement fund.)

However, scientists have begun to uncover why we may see faces where none exist in the first place.

Writing recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Sydney explained that the brain has evolved specialized neural mechanisms to quickly detect faces, using our common facial structure as a shortcut for faster recognition. 

In other words, the “two eyes, nose, mouth” facial pattern serves as a cheat sheet for deciding whether something is a face or not in the space of just a few hundred milliseconds. Anything that even vaguely adheres to that pattern can be shuffled into the “face” column—meaning that you may just see a kindly old man in the bark of a tree.

But why not take our time and make sure that what we’re looking at is another human?

According to the study, seeing faces in objects or our surroundings may be a survival mechanism—it’s safer to assume that you see the face of a predator, a rival, or a friend than to miss it and get clubbed upside the head.

“From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that the benefit of never missing a face far outweighs the errors where inanimate objects are seen as faces,” said lead author David Alais.

“There is a great benefit in detecting faces quickly, but the system plays ‘fast and loose’ by applying a crude template of two eyes over a nose and mouth. Lots of things can satisfy that template and thus trigger a face detection response.”

Some people are more likely to see imaginary faces than others; a study commissioned by UK optical chain Lenstore tested 2,000 people and found that women and extroverts were more likely to see faces in objects, but that everything from mood to spiritual belief could affect your interpretation of an image. 

(Want to take the test for yourself? Click here!)

This may also be why we tend to interpret emotion in these false faces—humans are hardwired to be empathetic and to look for emotional cues in others. Once our brains decide that, yep, there’s a face over there, we automatically begin to assess whether it’s friend or foe; happy or angry; tense or relaxed. 

From there, it’s a short jump to giving objects personalities—hands up if you’ve ever named your car—as our brains tend to retain judgments we’ve already made.

From “that’s a face” to “that face is happy” to “my happy little car Kevin,” it’s all a lightning-fast series of decisions designed to keep us alive, connected, and integrated in our tribes.

Of course, anything that humans experience can also be exploited. Another study, published in the Journal of Advertising Research, worked out that ads featuring faces or pareidolian not-faces were remembered more often and better than ads that didn’t have any face-like elements.

Again, it’s down to evolutionary benefit—paying attention to face-like patterns and remembering what you’ve seen is likely a better long-term strategy than blithely ignoring your neighbors because you’re face-blind.

Just don’t count on selling your smiling grilled cheese to cover your next car.

How about you? Do you tend to see faces in inanimate objects? Have you named your car, computer, or coffee maker? Let us know in the comments!

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7 other things worth your time

  • About 1.8 million out-of-work Americans have turned down jobs because of the generosity of unemployment insurance benefits, according to Morning Consult poll results released Wednesday. (Axios)

  • The websites associated with Russian ransomware gang REvil, which claimed responsibility for a recent major IT infrastructure attack, have disappeared from the dark web, and it's unclear whether this was planned by the group or not. (Reuters)

  • Elon Musk testified in a shareholder lawsuit about Tesla’s $2.6 billion acquisition of Solar City this week, asserting that he didn’t see any benefit in acquiring the company. He also said he “tried very hard not to be the CEO of Tesla” and traded personal insults with the plaintiffs’ attorney. (CNN)

  • Good news (but with an asterisk) … Delta Air Lines posted its first quarterly profit since the start of the pandemic: $652 million, and the company said leisure and business travel bookings are up sharply. The asterisk: Without federal coronavirus aid, the airline admits, it would have been much worse off financially. (CNBC)

  • In a medical first, researchers harnessed the brain waves of a paralyzed man unable to speak—and turned what he intended to say into sentences on a computer screen. It’s nascent technology: a computer analyzed patterns when he attempted to say common words such as “water” or “good,” eventually becoming able to differentiate between 50 words that could generate more than 1,000 sentences. (AP)

  • Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics will put their medals around their own necks to protect against spreading the coronavirus. The “very significant change” to traditional medal ceremonies in the 339 events was revealed Wednesday by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. (AP)

  • My God, can you imagine? Scientists have tracked the supposed “loneliest whale in the world” for 30 years, saying his vocalizations are much higher pitched than other whales, and theorizing that as a result he can’t communicate with them. Counter-scientific-argument: “Blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy; they’re not deaf. He’s just odd.” (The Guardian)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Wikimedia. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.