Own up. You see it too. We’ve all seen it. But its important to remember that just because that tree trunk LOOKS like it has a face. It doesn’t mean it’s judging you. Or that terrible shirt you’re wearing.

Trees don’t judge, but as humans we have a hard wired psychology for pattern recognition, especially when it comes to faces. Think of the classic smiley face: It’s just a line with two dots, but nobody argues that it isn’t a face, but a perfectly happy featureless monster. It’s been suggested that this allows us to recognize people from distances, only needing key features. For an early human (lets call him Ron), recognizing Oog, an angry high school football type who wants to cave Ron’s skull in, from a mile away has its obvious advantages.

This plays into the greater notion of our proclivity for pattern recognition. To continue our example, if Ron notices that when his friends walk past the growling cave at night, he never sees them again, he will hopefully avoid it and not get eaten by a giant spider. He might even tell Oog that the cave is full of Nazi gold. Oog won’t know what that is, but he’ll probably check it out anyway.

“So how is seeing that sour old face with suspect fashion sense in that tree a survival trait?”

Well, it probably isn’t. It’s more likely a side effect of our need to see patterns everywhere combined with our own personal biases. Like a Rorschach test, maybe YOU think deep down that your Ed Hardy shirt with the sequined tiger was a terrible idea.  Maybe that gnarled old tree-hag is judging you for good reason, and you feel guilty. We have to remember that it is the viewer projecting these images onto the cloud, tree, grilled cheese sandwich. One person’s tortilla Jesus is another’s taco viking.

Pareidolia isn’t limited to seeing faces either. Seeing a dog in the clouds or hearing satanic messages in Beatles tapes played backwards work too. The mind plays tricks on us, and the sooner we recognize that seeing isn’t really believing, the sooner we can all begin thinking skeptically.

Today’s post was brought to you by Cerium and has a Godwin count of 1.

If an early human came upon this creature while walking the savannah, he would most certainly kill it out of abject terror. But at least he would know where its face is.