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analogical theory

But this prototype is not perfect,” he said. “Sometimes genuine faces do not match these regularities, and sometimes nonfaces satisfy them.”

In other words, if the pattern of light and dark patches on a brindle cow happens to correspond to our conceptions of what a face should look like, we may interpret the coincidence as a visitation from Jesus Christ or Marilyn Monroe.

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.

To demonstrate this effect, Dr. Watanabe had subjects sit in front of a computer screen with faint dots cascading across it. At first, the participants could not figure out which direction the dots were moving. Then they went through another round of tests in which they were to identify letters superimposed on the dots as they moved across the screen.

When the subjects were then presented with a blank screen and asked to describe what they saw, a strange thing happened: not only did they insist they were seeing dots, but they tended to say the dots were moving in the direction they had been moving during the previous session.

Dr. Watanabe says the results suggest that subliminally learning something “too well” interferes with perceptions of reality. “As a result of repeated presentation, the subjects developed enhanced sensitivity to the dots,” he said. “Their sensitivity got so high that they saw them even when there was nothing there.”