University of Toronto2014-06-19 6:51 PM

Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia

Abstract
Face pareidolia is the illusory perception of non-existent faces. The present study, for the first time, contrasted behavioral and neural responses of face pareidolia with those of letter pareidolia to explore face-specific behavioral and neural responses during illusory face processing. Participants were shown pure-noise images but were led to believe that 50% of them contained either faces or letters; they reported seeing faces or letters illusorily 34% and 38% of the time, respectively. The right fusiform face area (rFFA) showed a specific response when participants “saw” faces as opposed to letters in the pure-noise images. Behavioral responses during face pareidolia produced a classification image (CI) that resembled a face, whereas those during letter pareidolia produced a CI that was letter-like. Further, the extent to which such behavioral CIs resembled faces was directly related to the level of face-specific activations in the rFFA. This finding suggests that the rFFA plays a specific role not only in processing of real faces but also in illusory face perception, perhaps serving to facilitate the interaction between bottom-up information from the primary visual cortex and top-down signals from the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Whole brain analyses revealed a network specialized in face pareidolia, including both the frontal and occipitotemporal regions. Our findings suggest that human face processing has a strong top-down component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face.

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