NewsAutomatic face recognition

Automatic face recognition

Whether Jesus on the toast or the smiley face in the cheese – we owe it to the phenomenon of pareidolia that we often see something that isn’t actually there

If you think you see a face in the milk froth of the coffee or on the toasted bread, you don’t have to suffer from hallucinations. It can also be a phenomenon known as facial pareidolia.

A team of researchers in Australia took a closer look at the phenomenon and found that gender stereotypes influence how we discover faces in everyday objects or in nature. The analysis showed that most people imagine a young male face. The study could therefore explain why many believe that they actually see a man on the moon. Or why Jesus appears in toasted sandwiches more often than Mary.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the response of around 3,800 people. The subjects were shown a series of images with objects – some with implied faces on them, some without. “Our results showed a striking bias in gender perception,” explains University of Queensland psychologist Jessica Taubert. Significantly more of the indicated faces would be perceived as male. According to Taubert, the fact that female faces are recognized less often is because “the minimal information that we need to recognize a face is not sufficient to see this face as female”.

So given just enough visual information to identify something as a face—two holes for eyes and one for a mouth—most people perceive that face as male. The researchers could not find out the exact reasons for this. It should not have been due to the selection of the participants: According to Jessica Taubert, the same number of women and men took part in the study. And both groups recognized more male faces.

Many see a man

Taubert assumes that motifs obviously have to have female characteristics in order to be perceived as female. That could explain why the symbol on the women’s toilet usually wears a dress. Other traits most people associate with women are longer eyelashes and fuller lips. “So it could be that that’s the extra information the brain needs to recognize motives as women.”

During the study, the team also examined participants’ ability to read emotions and age from putative faces. Many seem to be able to easily assign whether the faces looked happy, sad or angry. Also, most believed they could recognize “a very specific age.” Most faces were perceived as children under the age of ten or between the ages of 20 and 29. “So if you see a face on your burnt toast, you’re probably seeing a young man,” says Taubert.

Again and again people would also believe to recognize a familiar face. Ex-US President Trump or Mother Teresa seem to stare at people out of things or ham more often than, say, James Dean or Oprah Winfrey. Many see not only contemporary celebrities, but also religious motifs. In addition to Jesus Christ, the Mother of God is also repeatedly discovered. One of the most famous Maria loaves was toasted by the American Diana Duyser in 1994: the slice with the Virgin was auctioned in 2004 for $28,000.

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