Our brain’s ability to recognize patterns helps us predict future events, which gives us a survival advantage. When our minds can’t detect a recognizable pattern, we have difficulty anticipating future events and we experience stress. Consequently, we’ve evolved to be pattern-recognizing machines.
But our pattern-recognizing skills are often too strong and we end up seeing patterns in randomness. A specific manifestation of this is our tendency to see faces in inanimate objects, which is called pareidolia. Common examples are seeing the “man in the moon”, likenesses of Jesus in clouds or toast, and the Virgin Mary seeing Chuck Norris in her grilled cheese sandwich.
Pareidolia evolved because recognizing faces is a survival mechanism as “our lives depend on coexisting with the people around us. Our frontal cortex, responsible for sending sensory information back to the analytical part of our brain, is constantly on the alert for faces. Each time we encounter a face, we immediately begin to analyze the subject’s emotional state and identity even before we fully process that this subject is indeed a face.” Source.
Additionally, recognizing faces is important for infant-parent bonding as explained by Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World:
“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”
Interestingly, while pareidolia is common to all of us, those who are religious are more likely than non-religious to see faces in inanimate objects.
Here are some fun examples where you’ll likely see a face where there is none: