New mothers can do it all – nurture human life, hold down a job, make a house a home, feed a family, run a country and negotiate a world peace – all before dinner.
Now scientists have found that women who have just had a baby are much more likely to spot faces in everyday objects.
It could be a smiling face on the top of a beer can, an animal in a cloud or a wizened old man in a tree trunk – new mums can spot a human face just about everywhere they look, according to a University of Queensland study.
It’s not baby brain, it’s called face pareidolia and Dr Jessica Taubert from UQ’s school of psychology has found the art of perceiving a facial structure on an otherwise lifeless object is more common in new mothers compared to other women.
“We found postpartum women rated objects with illusory faces as more ‘face-like’ than expectant women and those not pregnant,” Dr Taubert said.
The research team set out to find out why and discovered it could be because new mums have elevated levels of oxytocin in the body after giving birth.
“Oxytocin is known for reducing stress, enhancing mood and promoting maternal behaviours like lactation, so it could contribute to a heightened sensitivity in perceiving faces in objects,” Dr Taubert said.
“Our team found illusory faces in everyday objects were more likely to be perceived as male than female,” she said.
“We were subsequently contacted by women who reported that they saw faces in objects more often after giving birth, so we conducted an experiment to examine this theory.”
The study involved 379 women – 79 who had given birth within the past 12 months, 84 expectant mothers and 216 women who were not pregnant.
Participants were asked to find the hidden faces in a diverse set of images, including images of real faces, images of illusory faces in everyday objects and objects without facial features.
“We found postpartum women were more susceptible to face pareidolia,” Dr Taubert said.
“We know our brains have heightened sensitivity to anything resembling a face-like structure, and this plays a crucial role in detecting the presence of human faces in our surroundings.
“Until now weren’t aware that our sensitivity to face pareidolia fluctuated throughout different stages of life.”
Dr Taubert says the findings indicate for the first time that hormone levels may have an impact on the basic visual processes responsible for our ability to detect and prioritise faces.
“This opens new lines of investigation because we know very little about how the brain adapts to the unique challenges associated with caring for a newborn.”
(Australian Associated Press)