June 3, 2024

NDSU psychology professor receives NSF grant to study facial pareidolia

Benjamin Balas, NDSU professor of psychology

Benjamin Balas

Benjamin Balas, NDSU professor of psychology, has received a $608,176 award from the U.S. National Science Foundation to study pareidolia in children in the project entitled, “Tuning of the Visual Perception of Meaning to Natural Image Statistics in Childhood.”

Pareidolia is the tendency of seeing an image, such as a face, on objects where there isn't one. For example, some people may perceive a face in the structures of clouds, or as a pattern on a building's windows, or even on the rocks on the surface of the moon ("the man on the moon").

"Our research is about how and why kids and adults sometimes see patterns (like faces) in textures and scenes. Seeing a face in the clouds depends on what your visual system knows about the way faces look and how it tries to combine information across different parts of a scene," said Balas.

Our vision is finely attuned to the colors and patterns we commonly see in nature. When we look at objects, our brains are most sensitive to patterns that resemble what we see in the real world. But what about when we encounter random patterns, like static on a TV screen? The focus of the three-year study is understanding how our brains make sense of these random patterns, especially when it comes to seeing faces where there are not any.

Balas specifically wants to learn more about how children develop an understanding about the world around them. His project will involve children between five and 12 years old and study how they learn to spot faces in noisy scenes. “By studying the conditions that lead people to see faces in noisy patterns, we hope to learn more about the way the visual brain changes in response to experience as kids get older,” said Balas.

The project is jointly funded by NSF Developmental Sciences, NSF Perception, Action and Cognition, NSF Science of Broadening Participation and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Colleen Fitzgerald, NDSU vice president for research and creative activity, noted that federal agencies today are interested in projects like this one, especially given NDSU's location in an EPSCoR state. "NSF's support of Dr. Balas's innovative study is an example of the agency's interest in supporting projects that come out of EPSCoR jurisdictions. This is a trend across all NSF directorates that other NDSU researchers should leverage."

Balas was recently involved with another EPSCoR Track 2 collaboration with the University of Nevada Reno and Bates College. The research provided him with important experience that he believes will have an impact on his new project. "During that project I developed experience related to big-data management and in using cutting-edge tools from computer vision to characterize human perception."

Balas's work not only expands our knowledge of cognitive development but also paves the way for innovative approaches to understanding how we interpret and make sense of the world around us.

For more information, view Balas’s research project online. Award No. 2338600.

Categories: Faculty, Research
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