Some people just can't stare at the sky without imagining a fluffy bunny floating by or look at a piece of wood without thinking they see a face grinning out of the grain.
These people might be especially neurotic, according to new research -- or they might just be in a good mood.
A Japanese study presented earlier this month at the annual Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Paris examined some of the personality traits and emotional states that enhance an individual's likelihood of perceiving a face in a random object, finding that neuroticism and a positive mood were correlated with this tendency.
The phenomenon of seeing patterns in randomness, which is called pareidolia, is fairly common. Here's how it works -- and why neurotic people may be more likely to experience it.
Connecting The Dots
While pareidolia was at one time thought to be related to psychosis, it's now generally recognized as a perfectly healthy tendency. Some anthropologists have even suggested it may have played a role in helping people in ancient societies make sense of the chaos of the world.
"[Pareidolia] is a normal neuroperceptual phenomenon," Dr. Kang Lee, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post. Lee published a study last year that found the human brain is essentially hard-wired to recognize shapes in objects.
We use an area of the brain known as the right fusiform face area to process faces. This area also becomes engaged when we perceive faces in other objects, neuroscientist Moheb Constandi explained in a Brain Decoder article.
"It happens in auditory and tactile domains as well," Lee said. "You mishear voices in a noisy environment or feel your cell phone vibrating when it's not."
Why? Our brains love to find patterns, which helps us reduce uncertainty and make sense of our experiences with the environment around us.
I've Just Seen A Face
For the new study, 166 Japanese undergraduates completed questionnaires assessing their personalities and tendencies to experience positive and negative emotions. Then, the students were asked to look at a pattern of random dots, describe what shapes they saw in the dots and draw in those shapes with a pen.
Some students were more likely to perceive faces or other inanimate objects such animals and plants than others, and the traits associated with the greatest likelihood of experiencing pareidolia were a neurotic personality and a positive mood. Women were also more likely to see faces in the dots.
The researchers said during their presentation that they aren't yet sure why these qualities were associated with a greater likelihood of seeing patterns in randomness. It's possible that neurotic people -- who are more prone to negative thoughts and feelings, and less emotionally stable than non-neurotic people -- are on higher alert for threats in the environment, which may lead them to perceive things that aren't there.
Pareidolia "helps us to be super alert to things... and thus is evolutionarily advantageous," Lee said.
However, the correlation of pareidolia with a good mood makes sense in the context of previous research linking positive emotions with enhanced creative problem-solving. It's possible that positive feelings widen the scope of attention, allowing for the consideration of diverse possibilities and interpretations.