Thursday, 11 July 2013

The 'ghostly faces in photos' mystery!

Simulacrum camelOne thing that always puzzles me is why people report seeing apparent faces in photographs and report them as ghosts or, at least, anomalous. It is puzzling because, in most cases, the faces are clearly not 'real' but an accidental shape that resembles one - a simulacrum, in other words. Someone seeing a rock that resembles a camel (pic right) is highly unlikely to report it as the ghost of a camel! So why, when a 'face' shape appears in what is clearly a bush, would anyone report it as a ghost?

I have previously discovered that blurred photos are particularly good for producing anomalous 'faces' - see here for an account of this research. On writing yesterday's blog entry, I noted that some people's fusiform gyrus may be reacting to face shapes as if they were real faces. This still didn't seem to be a complete explanation to me. So I looked back at the many reports of 'faces' I've been sent in anomalous photos down the years. A remarkably consistent picture emerged.

Ghostly maskNearly all the photos reported to contain faces (except orbs with faces which is a different phenomenon - see here) were either blurred, noisy or so compressed that the lack of detail and many compression artefacts made it difficult to distinguish objects clearly. Of these photos, the majority were motion blurred. What all these photos have in common, apart from an apparent face, is that the entire frame is unsharp. In such cases it is difficult to clearly identify all the objects present in the frame. This suggested a more complete explanation for the 'photo ghost face' mystery.

The photo, right, is an example of a 'face' in a motion blurred photo. Visualize a pair of those 'comedy tragedy' masks associated with theatres. Now take one of the two masks and add a sinister-looking moustache. Then look right. Do you see one such mask, looking left ('his' right) in the centre of the photo? The 'mask' is entirely illusory - see here for a non-motion blurred version of the same scene. But also notice how the vegetation in the background is unsharp. In some cases it is difficult to distinguish individual stalks and blades of grass that would be easily seen in a sharp photo.

And it is the unsharp background, as well as the blurry face itself, which may be key to why some people see such simulacra as ghostly faces! When we view a blurry photo, our brains are less able to quickly and accurately identify all the objects visible. So the brain must consider (unconsciously) a wider range of possible identities for each discernible object than would be needed with a sharp photo, where objects are obvious. So, to the brain, it becomes at least a possibility, albeit a remote one, that an apparent face in an unsharp photo might actually BE a face. This might be enough for the fusiform gyrus to react as if it was a face. And, given that the 'face' is not attached to a human figure, it becomes logical for the viewer's brain to conclude that they are looking at a ghost! It is, in many ways, a parallel process to misperception.

Given I can rarely see these faces in photos I'm sent, I suspect only a certain proportion of the population will react like this. Many people would see a blurred 'face shape' as simply that, even in an unsharp photo. To me this makes some sense as a more complete explanation of the 'ghost faces in photos' mystery.

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