A variety of Polistes fuscatus paper wasp faces. Diagram courtesy Science/AAAS
Article By: Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Published December 2, 2011
Are you one of those people who never forgets a face? You've got some company in the animal kingdom—the wasp.
Scientists have discovered that Polistes fuscatus paper wasps can recognize and remember each other's faces with sharp accuracy, a new study suggests. In general, an individual in a species recognizes its kin by many different means. But faces are extremely important to species such as humans, said study co-author Michael Sheehan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"Studies show that when you look at a face, your brain treats it in a totally different way than it does other images," he said.
"It's just the way the brain processes the image of a face, and it turns out that these paper wasps do the same thing."
(Related: "A 'Competent' Face Helps Win Elections, Study Suggests.")
Wasp Face-Learning Reaps Rewards
For the study, Sheehan and adviser Elizabeth Tibbetts put wasps of P. fuscatus and P. metricus—a closely related species with a much less complex social structure—in the long stem of a T-shaped maze. Each wasp in the maze was shown two images of faces of other wasps in the same species—one image to the wasp's left and another to its right.
The images "acted like signposts, telling [the subjects] which way to go to get their reward, which in this case was a safety zone," said Sheehan, whose study appears tomorrow in the journal Science.
Though images and safety-zone locations were constantly changed, "one particular image—face A versus face B—was [always] associated with the safety zone," Sheehan explained.
"So they learned, If I go to this face, that's good, but the other face does nothing good for me."
Repeating the maze experiments using simple shapes or other images instead of faces showed that the wasps learned far more slowly and not as well when faces weren't involved—emphasizing the insects' special response to face recognition.
(See "Sheep Are Highly Adept at Recognizing Faces, Study Shows.")
Wasp Face Recognition Helps Keep the Peace
The unique, distinct faces of P. fuscatus wasps, as well as the wasps' ability to recognize and remember each others' faces, are likely tied to the insects' multicolony social structure, Sheehan added.
"They have multiple queens and they all want to reproduce—they all want to be the most dominant. So being able to recognize each other helps them understand who's already beaten who, who has higher ranking in the hierarchy, and this helps to keep the peace.
"When they aren't able to recognize each other, [as] we've shown before, there was more aggression."
(Also see "Alien Wasps Abduct, Drop Ants to Get Food.")
P. metricus wasps, on the other hand, live in single-queen colonies and "don't need to be able to tell each other apart," he said. Not surprisingly, P. metricus wasps look alike and do not show the same ability for face-learning, Sheehan said.
Next, Sheehan hopes to find out how human face perception compares with the ability in wasps. Mammals and wasps have very different eyes, for one thing, and wasp brains are also much smaller and boast far fewer specialized regions.
"We'll be investigating the parallels between primates and wasps," he said.
"There are thousands of research papers on face learning in people, but we're really only beginning to learn about the wasps."
Throughout history, the figure has come to say many things. The representation of the figure should be looked at as a narrative that tells us about cultural changes. There was an unashamed appreciation for the human body until early Christianity depicted many nude figures shamefully covering their defenseless body parts or seen in acts of torture. Being human, the figure is something that makes sense to us. Our minds project the figure onto these still frame representations like clouds or a spot on the wall. We still have a very similar "reason and order" mindset to the Greeks . We project ourselves onto this world (pareidolia) in order to tame nature. The body is used as an expressive tool- the body re-formed. The body reformed into a new meaning, for it is just a representation of a human, not a human. At the point of abstraction, it becomes a recognizable symbol for a human- and therefore a relatable life. Capturing more of a likeness is none other than an optical illusion, and still represents a symbol of a figure. Fragmentation of the figure, like in Jannis Kounellis’s work, is an interesting concept. By fragmenting the figure, it allows the mind to fill in the space between the fragments, allowing for a greater chance of pareidolia to happen. Kounellis’s work plays on the idea of the viewer’s mind creating the figure on its own. As it relates to my work, I use the figure to create a narrative. By finding faces and figures with the use of pareidolia, it helps to make sense of the chaotic brush strokes by finding something that I know to be true. I create fragments, and then using my subconscious, my mind projects “what should be” within the negative spaces.
“There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us.”
“If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms”
There has been scientific evidence supporting the theory that as humans, our brains are programmed to instinctively recognize faces. Perhaps initially as a defensive mechanism to detect friend from foe. But one can only speculate.
“While the human tendency to see faces in other objects is rooted in neural architecture, the large number of actual faces we see every day may also be partly responsible for the Nun Bun phenomenon", said Takeo Watanabe, a neuroscientist at Boston University. His studies of learning processes show that after the brain is bombarded with a stimulus, it continues to perceive that stimulus even when it is not present” (Svoboda).
“Our brain is wired to find meaning. Our aptitude to identify structure and order around us, combined with our superior talent for face detection, can lead to spectacular cases of pareidolia, with significant effects in society and in culture” (MARTINEZ-CONDE). For each of us has a very unique and random set of stimulus determined by the people we meet, the choices we make, our beliefs, memories, etc.
Martinez-Conde, Susana, and Stephen L. Macknik.”A Faithful Resemblance." Scientific American Mind (2012): 19-21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
Svoboda, Elizabeth. "Faces, Faces Everywhere." New York Times. 13 2007: n. page. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.<http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/health/psychology/13face.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0>.
My perception often begins from the concept of pareidolia. My art starts off by creating a mark, and then finding meaning within the matrix. Each of us has a very unique and random set of stimulus determined by the people we meet, the choices we make, our beliefs, memories, etc. I intend to use Pareidolia to make sense of my own seemingly random stimuli. The most common thing for me to within my art are creatures and monsters with human attributes. “Our brain is wired to find meaning. Our aptitude to identify structure and order around us, combined with our superior talent for face detection, can lead to spectacular cases of pareidolia, with significant effects in society and in culture” (MARTINEZ-CONDE).
Martinez-Conde, Susana, and Stephen L. Macknik.”A Faithful Resemblance." Scientific American Mind (2012): 19-21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
Many believe that all artists have a heightened sense of pareidolia. For centuries artists have been using this technique for creating artwork. Although the term “Pareidolia” has only been around since 1994, there have been many terms coined over the years that sought to define pareidolia. Many of the definitions can bias either towards “chance/random or destiny/divinely ordained” (Abstract Extractionism). In 1754, the term serendipity was invented by Horace Walpole, meaning a happy accident”. Throughout history the terms evolved to better describe this phenomenon- 1785, Cozen’s New Method; 1875-1961, Car Jung’s Synchronicity; 1930’s, Dali’s Parnoiac Critical Method; and in 1958, Klaus Conrad’s Apopheni. All of the definitions mean basically the same thing, each with their own bias, whether it be bias towards a state of mind, or bias to the self. Leonardo Da Vinci was a strong believer of pareidolia, as he states in his journal: “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms” (John R.). In the contemporary art world artists that take part in this process are now considered Extractionists (term dated in 2000) or Abstract Extractionists (2005). Salvador Dali believed the paranoiac-critical method to play a key role in the creation of surrealism. Dali saw this process as an extension of the self and aimed for “systematic confusion”, which sought to create a new order, taking unrelated elements from the external reality to create a space that is uniquely his own. Dali states that “The moment is at hand when, by a process of a paranoiac and active character, it is possible to systematize confusion and thus help to discredit completely the world of reality” (Finkelstein 60). He believes this is the absolute best way to hone in his skills of illuminated delusion, as he so boldly states in the first issue of Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution that the concept of paranoiac critical is “the most precise and comprehensive statement of purpose with regards to paranoiac process” (Finkelstein 60) Max Ernst did not believe this was the best method of extraction. He instead believed the best method of practical application lay within frottage- a technique developed by Ernst in which the artist creates a rubbing over a textured surface. It can be left as is, or is used as the basis for further refinement (Finkelstein 59).
"Abstract Extractionism ." www.pareidolia.us. N.p.. Web. 6 Nov 2012. <http://www.abstractextractionism.com/>.
Finkelstein, Haim. "Dali's Paranoia-Criticism Or The Exercise Of Freedom." Twentieth Century Literature 21.1 (1975): 59.Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
What is Pareidolia? The psychological phenomenon of Pareidolia is defined as "a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct". The most common thing for people to see is faces and animals. My interest in Pareidolia began when a woman bought a painting from me of a cloud scene claiming to see the child she lost at birth within the cloudscape. Since then I have always been interested in the reasons we see seemingly significant illusions. In early 2000 a woman named Diana Duyser claimed to see the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast. She auctioned the item off for 28,000 dollars. In 2006 a satellite image of a face in the Cydonia region of Mars was discovered, which led to conspiracy theories that the United States was trying to hide the existence of intelligent life on Mars. I am interested in the reasons we see faces in inanimate objects. There has been scientific evidence supporting the theory that as humans, our brains are programed to instinctively recognize faces primarily. Perhaps initially as a way for humans to determine who is a friend or an enemey. The oldest artifact ever found is the Waterworn pebble, from Makapansgat South Africa, dating back to 3,000,000 BC, which actually resembled a human face. It suggests that a humanoid found this unaltered pebble and found it significant enough to pick up because of its close resemblance to a face. So still the question comes up...Why do we as humans see faces everywhere!? Is it possible that other species experience Pareidolia?
There are many contemporary artists exploring pareidolia, one being Ismael Cavazos, the inventor of the term “Abstract Extractionism” in 2005. He resides within Austin and Houston, Texas. Cavazos is primarily interested in Scriblism, and using automatism as means of extraction. The other half of his work is sculpting away parts of a peanut, finding images like a bat, faces, and potted plants. In the year 2000, Rob Nye, invented the term “Extractionism” as a term to describe how his work reflects pareidolia. He received his BFA from the university of Southern California, and studied at L.A Art center. He worked as a film producer, a senior advertising executive, and a creative director for thirty years before becoming a professional artist to explore Extractionism with his painting. He has displayed his work in national and regional competitions, and had solo exhibits in San Francisco and California. He believes his dyslexia enhances the images his mind projects onto surfaces. “His work is very abstract and bright, Nye creates his work by extracting human and natural forms he sees embedded in tiny bits of weathered stone and metal. His perceptions are then translated into large scale paintings using a unique, self-developed process combining oil paint, ink dye, oil-based pastels, and high gloss acrylics to produce images”(Studio 47). A gallery that seems fond of displaying Extractionst work is Studio 47, in Vermont, houses work from local, national, and international artists. It is a colossal historic sight, encasing three galleries within the walls.
Another exceptional artist using pareidolia for her work is Maya Erdelyi. Erdelyi received her BA in studio art with a minor in film from Hunter College. She went to Harvard Graduate school of education, and CalArts. She has a long list of awards and recognitions throughout the nation, mainly for her film and animation. Her work is very bright, painterly and quirky. Collaged materials seems to be a favorite and she often incorporates text within her work.
Award winning artist, Vesna Jovanovic, born in Chicago, Illinois,1976, works with combining her interests in science and perceptual phenomena. She usually works within well-established visual languages such as scientific illustration, often including chance occurrences in her process. Her work often represents the duality between order and chaos. Jovanovic currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.
Studio 47.< www.artpolonaise.com>.
Leitner Studios Blog
Author: Justin Leitner
Fine Artist/ Freelance Graphic Designer/ Instructor