New mothers more likely to see faces in everyday objects, study finds

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A recent study from the University of Queensland suggests that women who have recently given birth are more likely to perceive faces in everyday objects, a phenomenon known as “face pareidolia.”

This study offers new insights into how hormonal changes after giving birth may affect basic visual processes.

The Study’s Findings

The research, led by Dr. Jessica Taubert from UQ’s School of Psychology, involved 379 women, including 79 who had given birth within the past year, 84 expectant mothers, and 216 women who were not pregnant.

Participants were asked to rate their ability to perceive faces in various images, including real faces and illusory faces in objects.

The study found that postpartum women rated objects with illusory faces as more ‘face-like’ compared to expectant mothers and non-pregnant women.

The Role of Oxytocin

Dr. Taubert suggests that elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin in new mothers may be the cause of this heightened sensitivity to face-like structures.

Known for reducing stress, enhancing mood, and promoting maternal behaviors like lactation, oxytocin could play a role in making faces more easily recognizable to new mothers.

The study was conducted in response to a previous paper published in 2022, which had found that faces perceived in everyday objects were more likely to be perceived as male.

After the publication, several new mothers reached out, stating that they experienced a heightened ability to see faces in objects postpartum, prompting Dr. Taubert’s team to investigate this further.

Broader Implications

This research highlights for the first time how hormonal changes can affect our ability to perceive and prioritize faces.

Dr. Taubert notes that these findings open up new avenues for research into how the brain adapts to the challenges of early parenthood.

“It suggests that our responses to socially-relevant stimuli are heightened during early parenthood,” Dr. Taubert says.

“This is a significant discovery because we know very little about how the brain adapts to the unique challenges associated with caring for a newborn.”

Published in Biology Letters

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Biology Letters and add a new dimension to our understanding of how hormonal fluctuations can influence basic visual processes and social sensitivity, particularly in the context of early parenthood.

Understanding the mechanisms behind these changes could provide further insights into the adaptations that human physiology undergoes during important life stages, like parenthood.

The study opens the door for future research in this area, aiming to shed light on the brain’s adaptability and sensitivity to environmental stimuli, particularly during significant life changes.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about low choline intake linked to higher dementia risk, and how eating nuts can affect your cognitive ability.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies that blueberry supplements may prevent cognitive decline, and results showing higher magnesium intake could help benefit brain health.

The research findings can be found in Biology letters.

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