Faceless Faces

Shristi Roy on the phenomenon of finding faces

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…

You’ve heard the urban legend of Bloody Mary, right? That if  you call her name a certain number of times (popular accounts fluctuate between three and thirteen) in a dimly lit room before a mirror, she appears. If you grew up in, or were steeped in the popular culture of the 90s and 00s, you might even have tried this feat for yourself. Did you see something? Didn’t you? Enough people seem to have to make the legend persistent. 

But why does this legend exist? Science has an explanation for this. An article in The Ohio State University’s blog, ‘The Psychology of Extraordinary Beliefs’ referred to a BBC article on neuroscience and stated, “According to findings within neuroscience, humans have a fascination with faces, able to find faces everywhere — within food, machinery, and mundane household appliances. It, therefore, makes sense that when faced with little to no stimulation the brain attempts to find a face within a dimly lit mirror. There is actual science behind Bloody Mary, which is not what many expect and that makes the allure of the urban legend even stronger”.


Needless to say, I was one of those curious children who would try this ‘trick’ to see beyond what every human was seeing.  I mean, what fun remains in the regular perception of things, right? I’d often find myself hazing out the usual human vision and activating my ‘unusual in the usual’ one. That’s how I found the idea of Faceless Faces. This phenomenon is called Facial Pareidolia. In simple words, we humans tend to recognize and identify shapes even if they simply hint at a facial resemblance. In fact, it goes beyond just recognizing a face, we can in fact read much more information at a glance and tell if a particular face—doesn’t have to be living— is angry or happy or just disgusted.   

Years of evolution and the need to segregate friends from foes as a species have trained the human brain. However, this updated feature seems to have some glitches and its radar tends to go beyond living faces. So now, spotting shapes and faces in clouds is a rather romantic symbol and this glitch seems to have taken a rather entertaining stance.


Photograph by Shristi Roy