The Fascinating Science Behind Why We See 'Faces' In Objects

iStock
iStock

Diane Duyse had already taken a bite of her grilled cheese sandwich when she noticed something in the bread. It was the face of a woman—more specifically, the Virgin Mary—that was, she said later, "looking back at me." She placed the sandwich in a clear plastic box, surrounded it with cotton balls to protect it, and placed it on her nightstand, where the Virgin watched over her for the next decade. When word got out about Duyse's sacred sandwich, the Hollywood, Florida, resident discovered that she wasn't the only one who could see the face: The grilled cheese went viral, and in 2004, she sold it, missing bite and all, to a Las Vegas casino for $28,000.

It might seem strange to see the Virgin Mary in the burnt pattern of a grilled cheese, but in fact, it happens all the time: She's appeared in a pretzel, window glass, and a brain scan. People have found the face of Jesus in foods as diverse as tortillas, chapatis, and Cheetos. The phenomenon isn't reserved for religious iconography; Ringo Starr, the Beatles's drummer, has shown up in high-speed images of water drops bouncing off a lotus leaf, and Elvis has popped up everywhere, from potato chips to water stains. There is an entire Twitter account dedicated to the faces seen in mundane objects from stand mixers to coffee lids, and even a museum in Chichibu, Japan, near Tokyo, that houses more than 1700 rocks that look like human faces, including (you guessed it!) Elvis Presley's. People can discern faces in meaningless clouds, inkblots, the surface of the Moon, and the grille of their car—so much so that automobile designers consider how a new model's "face expression" could affect sales.

There's a name for this uncanny ability to see faces everywhere: pareidolia (roughly, from the Greek for "wrong shape").

Ian Jacobs, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Human brains are exquisitely attuned to perceiving faces—in fact, there's an entire region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is dedicated to it. Its functions are evident even from early childhood: Studies have shown that shortly after birth, babies display more interest in cartoon faces with properly placed features than in similar images where the features are scrambled.

The "face neurons" in people with healthy brains are so overactive that they scream FACE! in many situations where there are no actual faces to be found. Those sophisticated face-detection skills, combined with our brain's compulsion to extract meaning from the sensory chaos that surrounds us, is why we see faces where there aren't any. Typically these sightings are nothing more than our mind's interpretation of visual data, but some artists have purposely exploited our natural predisposition to see illusory faces: Salvador Dalí's Paranoiac Face features a woman's face comprised of a hut and seated villagers, and his Madonna of the Birds depicts the Virgin Mary's face composed of a flock of birds.

Don't worry—there's nothing wrong with you if you see faces in things. Pareidolia is an ordinary phenomenon, one that's widespread across people and cultures—but there are a variety of individual differences in human pareidolia. For example, researchers have found that women see faces in things more than men do, and proposed that the difference may be related to women's greater interest in social information, and their superior ability to decode emotions from facial expressions.

Others have found that paranormal and religious believers are more prone to pareidolia than skeptics and nonbelievers. Although believers and nonbelievers had equivalent sensitivity to faces, the paranormal and religious believers had lower thresholds for reporting that a face was present than nonbelievers did, possibly due to being more open to the suggestion that the images might contain faces. This finding could help explain the many apparitions of religious imagery in food items.

Pareidolia can be exacerbated in cases of fatigue and in some neurological diseases, such as Lewy body dementia (when protein deposits called Lewy bodies develop in nerve cells). On the flip side, when the fusiform gyrus is damaged due to a stroke or trauma, our ability to recognize faces is impaired. This rare condition is known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness. In extreme cases, prosopagnostic patients become unable to identify their own faces in the mirror, though they have no trouble recognizing objects other than faces.

It may not be a strictly human phenomenon either. Research has shown that rhesus monkeys see illusory facial features on inanimate objects such as toasters or sliced vegetables. It's not yet known whether any other species, particularly non-primates, are also receptive to pareidolia.

Mikhail Kryshen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Pareidolia extends beyond human likenesses: In 2007, a "monkey tree" in Singapore attracted thousands of visitors, who swore that a bizarrely shaped callus growing on a tree was a manifestation of either the Chinese deity Sun Wukong (also known as the Monkey King) or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Last year, the picture of a wooden board featuring three dark spots in the shape of a dog's face went viral on Twitter, with tens of thousands of retweets and numerous joking appeals to those knowledgeable in witchcraft to free the dog's soul from the piece of wood.

People have seen illusory faces in mountains, articles of clothing, domestic appliances, and many other improbable settings. In fact, given our neural circuitry, you could say it's hard not to see faces everywhere you look. Case in point: In 2011, two Canadian urologists said they saw the face of a man, contorted in a silent scream, in the scrotal ultrasound images of a patient affected with acute testicular pain.

A sick man's scrotum may or may not be the unlikeliest place where observant people have found a recognizable face, but the finding does demonstrate that the brain makes much ado about nothing. So maybe don't scrutinize your next grilled cheese sandwich too closely—or you may find it staring back at you.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.