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The Sound of Science - 'Why We See Faces In Patterns'

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NIU STEM Outreach

Newt: You're listening to The Sound of Science on WNIJ. I'm Newt with NIU Steam.

Becky: And I'm Becky. Today we're answering the question of why people tend to see human faces and random things and patterns in the world. Are our brains broken?

Newt: Of course not. As it turns out, human beings are generally pretty good at pattern recognition, likely because evolutionarily, this was a great trait to have to increase your odds of survival. Let's say you go into the woods, find some delicious wild berries and see a big paw print in the mud. The next moment, a big bear attacks and almost kills you. That would probably surprise you the first time it happens.

Becky: Humans have developed a very good memory to record events. The first time something happens, you can't predict the outcome. However, with repetition, your brain can start to piece together a common series of events, which helps us predict what's going to happen next. That way, you can go into the woods, find some delicious wild berries, see a big property in the mud, and then avoid being attacked by a bear in the woods.

Newt: So, how does seeing human faces in the world around us tie into all of this? There's a fancy, hard-to-pronounce word for seeing familiar or meaningful shapes and random patterns. This is called Pareidolia.

Becky: Gesundheit.

Newt: Thank you.

Becky: Humans are communal animals, meaning that we are more successful when we work together. Part of being social is identifying how people around us feel and reacting accordingly. Some suggests that the ability to recognize a human face and subsequently identify the emotional subtext was a very valuable trait to early humans.

Newt: According to the concept of survival of the fittest. If a trait helps a creature survive and environment, that creature has a higher chance of reproducing, thus passing the trait along the evolutionary chain. So early humans who could spot other people and work well with them probably did a great job at surviving. Now, all these years later, we're still super good at finding what looks like a human face.

Becky: So really, our brains are the opposite of broken. Our brains are supremely good at survival.

Newt: You've been listening to The Sound of Science on WNIJ, where you learn something new every day.

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