Cognitive Daily

Mystery photos revealed!

Last week, we asked readers if they could tell which of these two photos, offering only 12 × 14 pixels of information apiece, represented a face:


Nearly three-quarters of respondents accurately identified the photo on the right as a face. But what face? It only took 6 guesses for readers to guess that it’s a picture of Greta. No one successfully identified the subject of the photo on the left, though.

One thing a couple readers noticed as they participated is that blurring their vision or stepping back from their monitors helped them select the right picture. When I was creating the pictures, I found that they were easier to interpret when they were displayed at their native pixel resolution. When the pictures were just 14 pixels high, they seemed to leap into clarity:


Now can you identify the subject of the picture on the left? Make your guess before you read on, because I’m going to show the original photos below.

Actually, first I’m going to show you color versions of the tiny pictures. When they were in color, they seemed too easy, so that’s why I converted them into grayscale in the first place. So here are the tiny versions, in color:


Now can you identify the picture on the left?

I’ll leave a few blank lines for you to contemplate your answer.

Scroll down to see the original photos.

Keep scrolling…

Keep scrolling…

Keep scrolling…

Here they are:


So the people who guessed “flower” for the photo on the left were indeed partially right. It’s actually a tiny butterfly, which fascinated Nora and me when we took our hike through the North Cascades last summer.

These butterflies congregated on the trail near the smallest trickles of water:


Sometimes there were literally dozens of them, but these were the best pictures we could get, because they flitted away if you approached too close:



  1. #1 rob
    February 19, 2007

    I identified the right-hand one as a human face, but the left one looked like the face of a monkey (looking to the upper-right of the image) to me. Weird.

  2. #2 djinn
    February 19, 2007

    Do people with face blindness show less ability to recognize the inherent face-ness of a pattern such as this?

  3. #3 ricky
    February 19, 2007

    Before scrolling down, I thought the picture on the left looked like a smurf . . . ha.

  4. #4 Jenny
    February 20, 2007

    Why didn’t you pick a non-face subject that took up the same area within the picture as Greta’s face? The face takes up twice as much of the picture as the butterfly. Of course it’s going to be easier to identify. Unless you want to claim that the subject of the first picture is actually a butterfly on a bunch of flowers, in which case I will argue the first picture is more complex than the second.

    I’m not going to argue that face perception isn’t special, because there’s tons of evidence that it is. Just make it a fair fight!

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    February 20, 2007

    Good points, Jenny.

    I’m thinking we’re probably going to make this into a Casual Friday, and if we do, we’ll definitely take your suggestions into account.

  6. #6 Natasha
    February 20, 2007

    Nice…the butterflies were mud-puddling. They suck up water in mud or water directly to accumulate minerals like sodium etc. If you look carefully the next time you might notice, they’re squirting it out equally fast at the other end. These minerals are usually transferred to females during copulation in a spermatophore and seem to improve reproductive success.

  7. #7 Fausto Odilon
    February 21, 2007

    It’s fantastic!
    It showed us how we can identify images as better as smaller it is.
    We need not ever to see images in larger size to see it better. It was a good example.
    I like things that help us to break paradigms!

  8. #8 the222
    February 22, 2007

    i must have special powers i knew both…i swear!
    but i just saw the post today so didn’t write in.

    do i have esp or something?

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    February 22, 2007

    Probably not. But come back tomorrow because we’ll be doing a more thorough test of ability to recognize low-res images.

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