Tag Archives: Pareidolia

Is there any particular reason why prosopagnosics are Australia’s favourite popularizers of science?

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is a prosopagnosic, and apparently so is Robyn Williams, who has been the hosting The Science Show on Australian public radio since the last ice age with intelligence and grace and a pleasantly smart but mild English accent. They both work for the ABC in both TV and radio. They have both written many popular science books. They both come across as likable and enthusiastic. Is this just coincidence? Looking overseas, other highly successful popularisers of science, such as Oliver Sacks and Jane Goodall have also been identified as prosopagnosics. In his role as host of QI, actor Stephen Fry has done a lot to educate and popularise science and other types of knowledge. He’s one too. Strange coincidence that this particular type of fame seems to go with a very particular inability to recognize or memorise faces more often that it should for a characteristic that affects around 1 in 50 people? Maybe it is just more likely that a person who is very interested in science is more likely to identify their self as a scientific curiosity? I could contrast this group of people with famous people who have identified as synaesthetes. Synaesthesia, like prosopagnosia is a psychological-neurological characteristic that is uncommon but not rare. and quite interesting but definitely not obvious. Unlike celebrity prosopagnosics, it seems as though famous figures who claim synaesthesia tend to be more into the arts than the sciences. So what gives?

I found out about Robyn Williams and prosopagnosia reading part of the transcript of an upcoming episode of the radio show Ockham’s Razor which is hosted by Williams. The guest of the show is scientist Len Fisher, and guess what? Another prosopagnosic. He’s made the claim that apophenia is the opposite of prosopagnosia. I can see the logic behind this claim but “No”. Super-recognition is the opposite of prosopagnosia, because face recognition is a type of memory ability, and it is also highly specific to visual memory of faces. The concept of super-recognition is a mirror-image of the concept of prosopagnosia, and both specifically relate to the visual memory of faces. In contrast, apophenia is a very loose and general concept; the tendency of humans to perceive meaningful patterns within stimuli or data that are actually random. Apophenia is not specific to faces or to visual stimuli, and it is a more general term than pareidolia, which I’ve previously written about at this blog. The concept of apophenia seems to me to be too vague a concept to have any scientific utility or meaning, rather like the concept of autism. That’s my opinion, but I’m open to good arguments against it.

Another objection that I have to the idea of apophenia as the opposite of prosopagnosia is the apparent assumption that nature cannot create a biological system of face recognition that is accurate and doesn’t have a tendency towards either false positives (type I error or identifying unfamiliar faces as familiar) or false negatives (type II error or identifying familiar faces as unfamiliar). The source of this type of erroneous thinking about face recognition is the common (among scientists and non-scientists) miscategorisation of face recognition as a form of sensory perception rather than a form of visual memory. As far as I know there’s not anything necessarily amiss about the way prosopagnosics see or perceive faces. They don’t see faces as blurs or blanks. They just don’t remember them. And there’s no reason to think that supers have anything super about the way we see faces. There’s nothing super-human about my eyesight acuity or my ability to identify facial expressions. There’s also nothing in my face recognition ability that looks like any trend towards false positives. As I’ve explained in the first post in this blog, I’m not prone to incorrectly identifying strangers as familiar people, as has been observed in some stroke patients. Very occasionally I’ve had interaction between synaesthesia and face recognition, but this doesn’t affect accuracy.

There’s no reason for skepticism of the proposition that evolution can design a visual memory system that is amazingly swift and accurate and operates unconsciously and automatically. This is simply how visual perception works, for humans and for animals that are seen as much less cerebral than humans. Apparently there’s evidence that the humble pigeon can recognize human faces, and other bird species appear to have evolved the ability to visually recognize the difference between the speckles of their own eggs and those of similar eggs laid by the parasitic cuckoo bird. Evolution can achieve accuracy in systems, if there is a need for such systems to evolve, but it is also plausible that such abilities might be uneven in levels within populations, as variation within populations is completely normal and necessary in biological systems.


A nice bit of botanical pareidolia

Davis, Josh (2016) Newly Described Orchid Has A Tiny Demon At Its Center. IFLS. 15th July 2016.



Nothing like springtime in the south-west of Western Australia, or should I say Djilba?

For most of my life I’ve lived in Perth, Western Australia and have thought of my hometown as a pretty ordinary place, unique only for it’s isolation from the rest of Australia and the rest of the world. In the last decade or so it has become a boom-town due to mining and the competitive economy of Australia, but now the boom is busting, but among the spring flowers I care little about harsh economic realities. It is true, but a thing that I’ve not always appreciated, that WA is a world-class wildflower show in spring, or as our local Noongar Aboriginal people might say, the season of Djilba. 

Today I’ve had the opportunity to check out the delightful scent of local native leek orchids, quite a treat as they aren’t the kind of thing you’d see outside of a bushland reserve, and they apparently tend to bloom following fire events. I think the Anthocercis with it’s star-shaped masses of yellow flowers might have a similar habit. I didn’t know there are WA native orchids that like to laugh or yawn till I saw a webpage about WA Prasophyllums. Could be another case of botanical facial pareidolia.

More pareidolia viewing the world of plants and fungi


Pareidolia again at Sculptures by the Sea Cottesloe

definitely male and in a sombre mood

definitely not just a hunk of metal

mr melancholy by Paul Stanwick - Wright at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2015

mr melancholy by Paul Stanwick-Wright at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2015

A friendly face in a pile of rubbish

A child noticed this during a visit to Wolf Lane in the city to look at street art murals:

A section of a discarded box looks like a smiling face

a smiling face in a pile of rubbish



I must look, my fusiform gyrus tells me so

Street art by Beastman and Vans the Omega

a section of a wall mural by Vans the Omega and Beastman in Perth

We had the pleasure of watching street art being created for the Public street art festival in Perth, Western Australia by Form last weekend. The smell of spraycan paint wasn’t so great but it was a feast for the eyes and the ears, with a boom-box blasting away in the carpark on Murray Street. While we weren’t there in time to see the piece of art partly shown in the photo below, which is I believe the creation of the Sydney artist Beastman and Adelaide-based artist Vans the Omega, I found it hard to take my eyes away from the mural. I’m a sucker for colour, I just can’t get enough of it, and nothing commands attention like saturated colours outlined in black. I suspect that the pleasure that I get from colour could be explained by the blessings of normal colour vision in the eye (cone cells in the eye normal and working) and a well-developed and well-connected fusiform gyrus, which is the area of the brain that processes faces and numbers and letters and colours and other wonderful visual experiences. This artwork certainly gave my fusiform gyrus a few things to think about, because in addition to colour perception it triggered a bit of visual recognition, because I am sure I’ve seen an image quite similar to the section photographed in some other artwork, perhaps something from the Fin de siècle? In my time I’ve looked at a lot of Symbolist and decadent art and the other art movements from the late 1800s. Of course, the other brain phenomenon triggered by this art is pareidolia, and I can see that this is an aspect of visual perception that Beastman loves to play around with, eyes and hidden faces and symmetrical designs being recurring themes in his work. On top of that my brain is also prompted to some recognition of facial expressions, because that nearly-hidden face is a grumpy one, if I’ve read it right. There’s a lot to just looking, when the art is designed to appeal to human psychology.

More botanical pareidola


Salvador Dali certainly had a thing about hidden faces

Looking through our new calendar for the year 2014, a calendar featuring the art of the famous surrealist Salvador Dali, I noticed some works featuring images of faces embedded in paintings that are not of faces. I guess you might call it art designed to give rise to the human perceptual distortion that is known by the term pareidolia. Later we were browsing a fantastic illustrated book about visual illusions, and inside more bizarre creations of Dali could be found that featured hidden faces, along with plenty of other items of visual art by other artists that play with human face perception. Unfortunately, the description in this book of a work of Dali’s is incorrect. In the book there is a photo of a room at the Dali Museum in Figueres in Spain which is incorrectly identified as a portrait of the late blonde American actress Marilyn Monroe. I think it is actually a portrait of the late blonde American actress Mae West, cleverly constructed out of items in a room. The Dali painting Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire is another example of a Dali hidden face, and many more can be found among his prolific works. Dali certainly had a thing about hidden faces, or pareidolia. He even wrote a novel titled “Hidden Faces”. Dali is not the only artist to play with pareidolia. The Wikipedia has a fascinating article about this artistic theme.

Sarcone, Gianni A. and Waeber, Marie-Jo Amazing visual illusions. Arcturus Publishing Ltd, 2011. http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1848378300/archimedeslab-21/

Wikipedia contributors Hidden faces. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hidden_faces&oldid=585474591

Dali, Salvador Hidden faces. London: Owen, 1973.

Mae West Room. Figueres Dali Theatre-Museum. http://www.salvador-dali.org/museus/figueres/en_visita-virtual_4.html

Wikipedia contributors Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Slave_Market_with_the_Disappearing_Bust_of_Voltaire&oldid=541433189

Snapdragon seed pods are fine fodder for pareidolia

They are only seed pods, so why do I see skulls? I guess this shows that pareidolia works just as readily for the recognition of skulls and it works for the recognition of faces. That’s creepy.




And here is a monstrous example of pareidolia: