Recently I was rifling through the kitchen junk drawer at my mom’s apartment, and I found the scraper shown here. A very clear character immediately jumped out at me. I can’t imagine not seeing a face in this tool, with his crew cut hair, startled eyes, three-dimensional nose, and shocked mouth. (Clearly, he was outraged at being forced into such a harshly lit photo!)


Several days before I happened upon Mr. Shocked Scraper, I noticed another episode of face pareidolia (the phenomenon of seeing faces where none actually exist). This time I was in Santa Barbara for work, and when I glanced at the door handle inside my hotel room I saw this surprised face staring back at me! The wide-set eyes appeared under glossy dark hair, (or was that a Russian fur hat?) the nose was rakish but demure, and even though the mouth was occupied with what – a backwards pipe? – a bent lollipop? –  it still read as a face to me.

At one point it was assumed that only neurotic people saw faces like the ones above, (hmm, I protest!) but in a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto, in association with several Chinese universities, a different conclusion was reached. The lead researcher, Professor Kang Lee summed it up by saying,

…Our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.

Furthermore, the team’s research showed that when you expect to see a face or a figure, it’s much more likely that you will see one. That’s also helpful to remember – you can set expectations, and let your viewer’s interpretive frontal cortex do the rest. One way to guide people is by labeling your images – make it easy for them! (After all, one aspect of our work is to bring clarity).

And keep your eye out for faces – in the clouds, in your oatmeal, or in the next tool you pick up. It may happen when you least expect it! I was just about to publish this blog and went to help my husband stabilize a shelving unit on the uneven floor of our basement. As he placed the board under the legs of the unit, I looked down – and there was E.T. (The Extraterrestrial) staring back at me! Ha – excellent timing! Check out #iseefaces for loads more. Enjoy!