Faces in Weird Places: Second Century Initiative Fellow Studies Face Pareidolia by Monkeys
Second Century Initiative (2CI) Fellow Molly Flessert has always loved animals. So much so, that she has decided to dedicate her life to studying the very minds of the creatures that she is so interested in.
Flessert is a graduate student studying comparative cognition, the study of cognitive processes and their evolutionary origins in various species. In Molly’s case, she is specifically studying how the minds of nonhuman primates, such as monkeys and bonobos, operate compared to the minds of humans.
Flessert, from Phillips, Wis., began her college career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received her bachelor’s degree in zoology and conservation biology. She chose Georgia State for her Ph.D. program because of the university’s unique resources and research opportunities to continue working with nonhuman primates, something that Flessert had begun as an undergraduate.
“After I graduated from Wisconsin, I completed a two-year research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health where I continued to work with rhesus macaque monkeys,” Flessert said. “When I started looking at graduate programs, Georgia State really stuck out to me because they had colonies of capuchin and rhesus monkeys as well as an awesome faculty with diverse backgrounds. It was always at the top of my list and I was really excited to come here.”
Although Flessert’s love of animals inspired her to do the work she does today, she admits that she was initially unsure of what her career path would be. She spent most of her undergraduate years searching for something she was interested in and eventually she found it.
“I had always wanted to work with and study animals and their behavior. For me, that’s really where my interest in this topic started. However, I never saw it as a viable career option. So, I went to college, took a lot of different classes in search of a solid career path, but I just kept going back towards zoology and animal behavior,” Flessert said. “I didn’t know exactly where that was going to, or even could, take me. But, once I started working with nonhuman primates I became really interested in how their minds worked, and how similar or different their minds are compared to ours. I just continued to follow that path.”
Flessert’s research is centered around visual perception, specifically the perception of face pareidolia by nonhuman primates.
“Face pareidolia is when you see a face when there’s not really a face there. For example, when you’re able to see a face in inanimate objects, like clouds or trees, you are experiencing that illusion,” Flessert said. “My research asks whether different species of nonhuman primates actually experience and perceive this illusion.”
Flessert’s work builds upon her previous research as well as the research of her advisor, Dr. Michael Beran of Georgia State’s Language Research Center. Her research done at NIH initially suggested that rhesus monkeys perceive illusory faces through measures of their looking time and gaze patterns.
“My advisor had already completed some work examining face pareidolia in nonhuman primates and children. His results were different from what I discovered and indicated that monkeys struggle to categorize illusory faces as faces,” she said. “We’re designing a new project to build off our work and hopefully integrate our results.”
Once the monkeys have been exposed to face pareidolia, Flessert intends to use a type of rating scale that will allow the monkeys to place illusory faces on a continuum of ‘face likeness.’
“I want to see if I can teach them how to use a basic form of a rating scale that they could start to apply to different kinds of stimuli, and eventually rate faces on their face likeness,” she said. “This includes identifying real faces on one end of the scale, and then identifying objects that don’t look like faces at the other end of the scale. Then, we show them the pareidolia images and see if they place them somewhere in the middle of the scale.”
Flessert said that receiving the 2CI Fellowship has helped her both financially and professionally.
“Receiving the 2CI fellowship has provided me with funding to attend academic conferences throughout the year,” she said. “I get to present my own research at those conferences, and I also get to network and meet a lot of people in my field who I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to meet.”
Flessert’s academics and research at Georgia State are opening a wide range of future career possibilities.
“I could see myself going a number of different ways but right now, I’m interested in continuing on in academia and becoming a professor,” she said. “Part of what I like about this program is that it lets me do a lot of things. I can get involved in different research areas, gain teaching experience, and participate in STEM outreach. All of these experiences have really helped me to think about what I want to do in the future.”
– Kiana Colquitt, Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost