Just Face It
It’s Muppets Take The Caribbean, I guess! Diver and photographer Mauricio Handler and his wife Julia found this hilarious sponge on a dive near Curacao. Everyone seems to thing this looks like Cookie Monster, but I don’t agree.
Yip yip, I’ve got a more extraterrestrial resemblance in mind:
But why do we see a face there at all? It’s just the random growth pattern of three sponge tubes … right?
It’s a phenomenon called pareidolia, where a random pattern suddenly becomes significant. It’s a trick of the brain, a failure of our pattern recognition system, like seeing a face on Mars where there are only random shadows and coincidentally aligned terrain:
There’s a whole subreddit for pareidolia, by the way. When it comes to picking out faces where there are none, computers can make the same mistake, oddly enough.
More than other human features, faces seem to jump out at us particularly well. It makes sense that we’d be neurological experts when it comes to picking out human faces, because we stare at them from infancy onward. But what’s in a face? Many believe that our ability to remember faces is not the result of photographic memory, but rather recognizing mathematical relationships between features (horizontal vs vertical axes, eye shape, mouth curve, etc.). It’s called the face space model.
And what do we read in those faces? Since Darwin, the idea of universal facial emotions has been tossed around.
It’s a strategy even used in airport security training, most famously by Paul Ekman. However, some are beginning to doubt that Ekman’s “universal theory” is worth smiling at.
Some people are even blind to faces, a condition called prosopagnosia. Studying why these individuals can’t pick out a face from a crowd has taught us most of what we know about how healthy brains see them in the first place. Would they see a face in that sponge?
My guess is no. EDIT: Saw a reblog from this Tumblr reader who has prosopagnosia, and they say they can see the sponge face, it just doesn’t stick. Fascinating.
Did Superman strike the people around him with prosopagnosia? Maybe that’s how his ridiculous disguise worked:
Of course, Muppets don’t look much like people (or do they?), so why do we see that face at all?
If you’d like to “face up” to some interesting sponges, here’s an article I wrote for Wired earlier this year on sponges with skeletons made of glass.