Why did I see faces in my bedsheets?
October 24, 2011 4:21 PM   Subscribe

I experienced something strange while I was pregnant. Can anyone help me find an explanation?

During the second half of my pregnancy, I used to see strange faces immediately upon waking. These were not hallucinations, but an instant ability to perceive the outlines of a face in something like a crumpled-up blanket or T-shirt. This was sort of like when someone finds an image of Jesus in woodgrain, but much more detailed, incorporating all the wrinkles and folds to make faces that reminded me of goblins from Jim Henson's "Labyrinth" in their detail and general grotesque-ness. But all of the details were present in the blanket -- I wasn't making anything up, just seeing a pattern that is not normally apparent and certainly not instantaneously.

The faces didn't scare me, though most of them did have menacing expressions. But add a lot of folds to a face and it's gonna look scary. I saw them (always different faces) hundreds of times upon awakening. I never thought they were "real." I could have shown the faces to other people the same way you can show someone any such image.

I ended up giving birth six weeks early due to pre-eclampsia. (We are both doing great now.) Seeing the faces started long before the pre-eclampsia, and ended abruptly after i gave birth. I have a long history of depression and took Cymbalta throughout my pregnancy. No neurological disorders or history of hallucinations, and I was very happy to be having the baby, so I don't think it was a repressed emotional type deal.

Does anyone know what this might have been?
posted by gentian to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The term you're looking for is Pareidolia. Much like discerning voices where there are none, its not a hallucination but operates in a similar mechanism. A family member had a similar experience when she was having major hormonal shifts.
posted by modernserf at 4:25 PM on October 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

That's interesting. I have no scientific explanation for you, but I'm eight months pregnant and one of the subtle little changes I've noticed during my (first, healthy and uneventful, not taking any meds) pregnancy has been an increased ability to make faces out of inanimate objects in the way you describe. I never would have thought of it until I read this, so I think it must be much more extreme for you (and it's not a thing I wake up to like it is for you), but I feel like pregnancy has brought a bunch of small changes to how I relate to the world, music sounds better for another example.

Congrats on the new baby by the way!
posted by crabintheocean at 4:37 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Conjecturing wildly here with no knowledge of anything: perhaps in an evolutionary sense the hormonal shift caused by pregnancy makes pregnant females hyperaware of potential "threats" in their environment. You're surviving for two, now, after all.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:01 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

That sounds a lot like sleep paralysis which, for me, strongly correlates to sleeping on my back and light restless sleep. I see hats, but sometimes faces or head/necks. The gradually fade after I wake up but some last long enough that I can sit up and pass my hand back and forth "through" them. Spooky!
posted by fshgrl at 5:05 PM on October 24, 2011

This is not sleep paralysis.

Have you ever had dreams...and actually believed it to be true when you woke up...for just a few seconds, though? Im adsuming the faces you saw were momentary as well.

If you haven't, other people in this thread will have. I think its kinda the same thing.

And yeah, i'd say hormones.

Congrats on the baby, and your recovery.

Ps. Dont tell the baby this story EVER.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:26 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

It was probably not exactly sleep paralysis, but closely related (hypnagogia seems to be the term). Basically, the way I understand it, your body wakes up before your brain does. I've had similar experiences where I felt pretty "awake" but part of my brain was definitely still dreaming and they've lasted a surprisingly long time (I'm talking a minute or two -- but just longer than you'd think).

Even if this wasn't in your history before, the combination of Cymbalta and pregnancy hormones seems like a pretty likely cause for it (although that's just a guess -- but just that I'm not at all surprised).
posted by darksong at 6:45 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happened to me, too, but it was a couple different times in my life, one of which was early pregnancy, and the other was a time of great stress. Our hormones are in a feedback loop with the hypothalamus, which is right up in the middle of the brain. So, yeah, as weird as this feels, it's actually normal.
posted by Leta at 6:46 PM on October 24, 2011

Happened to me during my first pregnancy, but I never thought much about it until I read your question. At the time I chalked it up to the fact that I spent 4 months on bed rest bored out of my ever lovin' mind. Fun to know that there's a medical explanation for it. Cool.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 6:57 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

perhaps in an evolutionary sense the hormonal shift caused by pregnancy makes pregnant females hyperaware of potential "threats" in their environment.
posted by tumid dahlia

The pregnant females might also be scanning the environment for potential supporters, as well.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:14 PM on October 24, 2011

Also that.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:43 PM on October 24, 2011

I see faces in woodgrain, sure. Or popcorn ceilings. Or hair that gets stuck to the shower wall. (TMI?) Is this weird? I don't really think about them much unless my mind is wandering and I'm stressed, but this is pretty much a given for me if I'm home sick with a fever, for instance.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:47 PM on October 24, 2011

Huh. I just had my baby a month early after being hit with severe pre-eclampsia and I, too, had been seeing faces or figures in random carpet patterns and blanket folds, etc. I always tended to do so anyway, but now that you mention it I feel like it was noticeably more so these last few weeks. Very interesting....
posted by daisystomper at 9:49 PM on October 24, 2011

reminded me of goblins from Jim Henson's "Labyrinth" in their detail and general grotesque-ness

So you've seen Labyrinth, and you know what happens to the baby there. Underlying concern about losing the baby + noticing a face once (as everybody does from time to time) = reinforcing / self-perpetuating tendency to see the faces, resolved after the birth of the baby?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:28 PM on October 24, 2011

Chalk up another for anecdata: during late pregnancy - mild pre-eclampsia, woodgrain floors, faces.
posted by metaphorical at 10:50 PM on October 24, 2011

I've seen faces in patterns since childhood, usually when I'm tired and distracted. Once found, I can easily re-find them. The pattern in the marble in the shower has a lady's face, that sort of thing. I have a very active mind and see pattern very easily in all things, so I've never worried about it. Just chalk it up to creativity running amuck.
posted by myselfasme at 11:51 PM on October 24, 2011

Best answer: I get painless migraines fairly often-- in the past, I got them quite often-- and my main symptom has been tesselated arcs of pulsating light that gradually take over most of my visual field and obliterate all other images.

These are believed to be caused by swelling of the brain which makes it press on the skull in the region of the visual cortex at the back of the head.

Back when they began, after about twenty I became aware of a preliminary symptom: first I would see faces in bushes, on brick buildings, in patterns of objects on the shelf. etc., followed a few minutes later by an inability to make any sense of the faces on people; everyone looked like Mr. Potatoheads with their features swimming randomly around like big pond insects on their faces.

The cortical regions that control recognizing faces are on the bottom of the brain down from the visual cortex, and I concluded that area must be pressing on the skull before the visual cortex did during the course of my migraines.

And that's what I think happened to you, gentian, and the commenters in this thread who had preeclampsia: your brains were occasionally pressing lightly on the insides of your skulls in the area that controls recognizing faces.

According to a page maintained by the Department of Neurology at Columbia:

Eclampsia is a condition caused by pregnancy. The initial manifestations of this illness are called pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia arises at about the 20th week of pregnancy and is characterized by hypertension (high blood pressure), edema (tissue swelling due to the movement of fluid out of blood vessels), and proteinuria (an excessive accumulation of protein in the urine). When a pre-eclamptic patient develops neurologic symptoms, the condition is referred to as eclampsia. Eclampsia is usually characterized by seizures, but can also present as blindness, visual hallucinations, or even coma. The main cause of these symptoms is hypertensive encephalopathy and cerebral edema.

Note that reference to "cerbral edema" I bolded there at the end. That's another way of saying swelling of the brain.

Wouldn't surprise me if 'seeing faces' became a recognized warning signal of preeclampsia.
posted by jamjam at 1:04 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just a contrary data point to the pre-eclampsia theory: I definately do not have it (unless you can have it with a BP of 93/53 and no other signs). Seems like my face seeing might not be as dramatic as other folks though, so maybe I'm a bad example and there is a connection when it's more intense...
posted by crabintheocean at 1:27 AM on October 25, 2011

Seconding hypnagogia (or more technically, hypnopompia). Parts of the brain that are dedicated to finding meaningful patterns in visual noise get ramped up during dreaming. Sometimes that increased activation doesn't switch off immediately upon waking. As to why—that's anyone's guess. It may or may not have had anything to do with your pregnancy at the time.

The part of the brain dedicated to facial discrimination (and subtle feature discrimination in general) is known as the fusiform gyrus.

Seeing faces and other patterns in visual noise is also a notable effect of hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin. These drugs are active on certain subtypes of serotonin receptor (specifically, 5-HT2A). Why is this significant? Although most popularly known as being related to mood, serotonin is involved with many processes in the brain, sleep and dreaming being one of the more significant.

Finally I'll note that there are interesting (though non-definitive) relationships between antidepressants and sleep architecture. Most antidepressants are known to suppress REM sleep. The significance of this in terms of therapeutic efficacy has been a subject of debate—the current consensus is that the effect is probably incidental.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:41 AM on October 25, 2011

Maybe it's related to this optical illusion.
posted by dhruva at 8:45 AM on October 25, 2011

Note that reference to "cerbral edema" I bolded there at the end. That's another way of saying swelling of the brain.

Dear op. please do your own research as well. That is not what "cerbral edema" is.

I think most people are swinging wildly with no basis for their conclusions...
posted by hal_c_on at 11:13 AM on October 25, 2011

Note that reference to "cerbral edema" I bolded there at the end. That's another way of saying swelling of the brain.

Dear op. please do your own research as well. That is not what "cerbral edema" is.

I'll quote from farther down in the article I linked from Columbia university:

Treatment of cerebral edema. It is common for the increased blood pressure associated with pre-eclampsia to cause leakage of fluid from the blood vessels supplying the brain. Under these circumstances the brain can become swollen with fluid, a condition known as cerebral edema.

From the Wikipedia article you linked, hal_c_on:

Cerebral edema or cerebral œdema is an excess accumulation of water in the intracellular and/or extracellular spaces of the brain.

All intracellular leakage of "water" would result in brain swelling, of course, as would extracellular leakage which did not somehow end up between the brain and the skull (and even that would cause the brain to swell initially), such as in the case of altitude sickness mentioned later in the article:

High Altitude Cerebral Edema
High altitude cerebral edema (or HACE) is a severe form of (sometimes fatal) altitude sickness. HACE is the result of swelling of brain tissue from leakage of fluids from the capillaries...

I don't see what's making you so hostile here, hal_c_on, but if you'd care to discuss it, shoot me a memail; otherwise, consider it noted for future interactions.
posted by jamjam at 2:08 PM on October 25, 2011

Since, as hal_c_on's link has reminded me, altitude illness also produces cerebral edema, I thought I'd see if there were any accounts out there of seeing faces during episodes of altitude illness, and I found this in a Flickr discussion group:

Did an event trigger your ability to see faces?

billw707 says:

I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2005 with some friends. Coming down, and suffering a moderate bout of altitude sickness, I started seeing faces in everything. I saw them in rocks, in the gravel, in trees, etc. Thing is, now I still see them in everything, even when I don't really want to. I see them in the popcorn ceiling bumps, while lying in bed, I see them in marbled tile floors etc. I am not crazy, because when I go up to the image and point them out to my wife or friends, they can see them too. They just tend to "pop" out at me. It doesn't affect my day to day life, but I was wondering if anyone else had a similar experience?

posted by jamjam at 4:35 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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