Sammy Nickalls
Updated July 21, 2015

Do you tend to see faces in inanimate objects? You know: the fronts of cars (the headlights are the eyes, of course!), electrical outlets, houses? Don’t worry, you’re so not alone.

It turns out that the tendency to spot faces in inanimate objects actually has a name: pareidolia. One area of the brain is specialized to process *actual* faces, but it also lights up when you see a face pattern (i.e. a grinning smiley face on the front of a car). This explains why people can find patterns in toast, and is the reasoning behind the inkblot test, which Hermann Rorschach developed to determine the mental state of patients or even just determine personality traits.

Now, we’ve learned thanks to to recent research in Japan that pareidolia is more likely to occur in neurotic people.

In a study conducted by Norimichi Kitagawa of the NNT Communication Science Laboratory in Tokyo, 166 healthy undergrads were tested. The subjects of the study were given tests — the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, to assess their current mood, and the Ten Item Personality Inventory, to test their personality. They were then shown a sheet of paper flecked with random dots. They were asked what shapes they saw (if they saw any at all), and were asked to trace the shapes with a pen.

Researchers found that those who scored higher in neuroticism — and those who were in more negative moods at the time — tended to see faces in the dots (however, the moods the participants were in didn’t have to do with the nature of the shapes; that is, someone who was sad didn’t necessarily see sad faces). Women also tended to see faces more often than men.

As neurologist and writer Moheb Costandi explains in BrainDecoder, the researchers proposed that although no one knows exactly the traits that will make one susceptible to pareidolia, it could be because of an evolutionary adaptation: those who have higher nerves are on higher alert for threats, and thus may see danger in their normal surroundings when it doesn’t actually exist.

Another thing the researchers noted was that those in positive moods were more likely to find different interpretations of the dots that weren’t necessarily faces. Why? Because of enhanced creativity. “We think positive moods enhance creativity,” Kitagawa said in the study, “so people with higher positive mood scores may find more possible interpretations of the dots.”

This makes total sense, but also, faces in inanimate objects can be pretty cute.

I’d keep my pareidolia any day.

(Images via Pixar, NBC)