Face Pareidolia in the Rhesus Monkey

Curr Biol. 2017 Aug 21;27(16):2505-2509.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.075. Epub 2017 Aug 10.


Face perception in humans and nonhuman primates is rapid and accurate [1-4]. In the human brain, a network of visual-processing regions is specialized for faces [5-7]. Although face processing is a priority of the primate visual system, face detection is not infallible. Face pareidolia is the compelling illusion of perceiving facial features on inanimate objects, such as the illusory face on the surface of the moon. Although face pareidolia is commonly experienced by humans, its presence in other species is unknown. Here we provide evidence for face pareidolia in a species known to possess a complex face-processing system [8-10]: the rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta). In a visual preference task [11, 12], monkeys looked longer at photographs of objects that elicited face pareidolia in human observers than at photographs of similar objects that did not elicit illusory faces. Examination of eye movements revealed that monkeys fixated the illusory internal facial features in a pattern consistent with how they view photographs of faces [13]. Although the specialized response to faces observed in humans [1, 3, 5-7, 14] is often argued to be continuous across primates [4, 15], it was previously unclear whether face pareidolia arose from a uniquely human capacity. For example, pareidolia could be a product of the human aptitude for perceptual abstraction or result from frequent exposure to cartoons and illustrations that anthropomorphize inanimate objects. Instead, our results indicate that the perception of illusory facial features on inanimate objects is driven by a broadly tuned face-detection mechanism that we share with other species.

Keywords: eye movements; face detection; face perception; monkey behavior; visual preference.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eye Movements*
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Illusions / physiology*
  • Macaca mulatta / physiology*
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Young Adult