I just love this entry from Matt Jones about pareidolia, the phenomena that leads us to see faces in things. As he explains, it actually turns out that there is a reason for what happens, as we respond to faces more quickly than other images. Jones quotes a paper called Early (M170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects.:
The tendency to perceive faces in random patterns exhibiting configural properties of faces is an example of pareidolia. Perception of ‘real’ faces has been associated with a cortical response signal arising at approximately 170 ms after stimulus onset, but what happens when nonface objects are perceived as faces? Using magnetoencephalography, we found that objects incidentally perceived as faces evoked an early (165 ms) activation in the ventral fusiform cortex, at a time and location similar to that evoked by faces, whereas common objects did not evoke such activation. An earlier peak at 130 ms was also seen for images of real faces only. Our findings suggest that face perception evoked by face-like objects is a relatively early process, and not a late reinterpretation cognitive phenomenon.
He then goes on to wonder how we can use this knowledge to help people comprehend data, showing some of the work they’re doing with the idea. Be sure to watch the Chernoff Schools sketch. As a side note, there is a lovely American Express commercial that taps into pareidolia.