God Save the Queen
Canadian banknotes issued in 1954 featured a portrait of British monarch Elizabeth II. The young queen looked majestic and serene, despite the grinning demon tucked in the curls behind her regal ear (colored red, to make it easier to see). Talk about having a royally bad hair day! Canadians were understandably appalled by what became known as the “Devil's head” or “Devil's face” series. In 1956 the Bank of Canada ordered banknote companies to darken the highlights in the queen's hair, effectively exorcising the King of Hell from Canadian currency.
A brain region called the fusiform gyrus is responsible for our extraordinary face-detection abilities. Neurons in this area are so exquisitely attuned to sense faces in the environment that they often signal false positive results in the presence of sparse information, such as when we “see” faces in clouds, in wallpaper patterns, the front of cars or food items.
Diane Duyse of Florida had taken a small bite out of a grilled-cheese sandwich when she noticed an image burned into the bread. “I saw this lady looking back at me,” she said. Ten years later the sandwich, said to bear an image of the Virgin Mary, sold on eBay for $28,000. Pareidolia can be lucrative.
Eye of the Tiger
Neurologists Péricles Maranhão-Filho and Maurice B. Vincent of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro advocate the use of face-detection illusions as heuristics to help doctors diagnose neurological diseases. One is PKAN, or pantothenate kinase–associated neurodegenerative disease, which results from mutations in the genes encoding the enzyme responsible for the biosynthesis of coenzyme A. Typically PKAN starts during childhood, and most patients lose the ability to walk within 15 years. The brains of PKAN patients show decreased intensity of the globus pallidus (involved in motor control) from iron accumulation, with a central area of increased intensity from necrosis. The image looks decidedly feline, providing the so-called eye-of-the-tiger sign.
The “Ow! My Balls!” Illusion
Medical imaging is a new fertile ground for pareidolia. Urologists G. Gregory Roberts and Naji J. Touma of Queen's University in Ontario were shocked to discover a face, contorted in agony, in the scrotal ultrasound images (left) of a 45-year-old man afflicted with severe testicular pain. The doctors toyed with the idea that the image might be a manifestation of Min, the Egyptian god of male virility, but ultimately deemed the facial features in the benign mass accidental.
The brain's capacity to establish false links among things that are not actually connected is essential to the “paranoiac-critical method” artistic technique invented by Spanish surrealistic painter Salvador Dalí. (Paranoia and pareidolia have the same etymology, from the Greek para- for “instead of” and -oid, -oeides or -eidos for “form.”) In Dalí's Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, several features in Voltaire's face are formed by the bodies of people in the scene (below).
Dartmouth College neuroscientist Ming Meng and his colleagues recently imaged the brains of observers while they viewed faces and objects that looked like faces. The left fusiform gyrus was activated by both faces and objects resembling them, whereas the right fusiform gyrus showed much stronger activation to actual faces than to look-alikes.
This article was originally published with the title A Faithful Resemblance.