Faces In Strange Places: The Psychology Behind Ghostly Ultrasounds

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I very much believe—and know—that that’s my mum’s face.

Rebecca Melia never got to tell her mom she was pregnant.

Rebecca, 30, had been through an emotional roller coaster. She’d lost her mother, Sharon—who she considered one of her best friends—to cancer.

“My mother was a very loving, kind, selfless person, one you met once and never forgot,” Rebecca tells Urbo. “She’d give anyone time, even if she had a mountain of problems. She’d always be there, no matter what.”

Rebecca says that her mother’s strength served as a source of inspiration.

Rebecca Melia and her mother, Sharon (Melia Becky/Facebook)

“She had a hard life, even to the end, but was positive always. Never said, ‘Why me?’,” she explains. “[She] was so grateful and so happy with the little she had. Beautiful, inside and out.”

And Sharon’s love of motherhood served as a source for Rebecca through her pregnancy. In her time on Earth, Sharon had eight children, including Rebecca, and she left behind 13 grandchildren with a 14th on the way.

During a routine ultrasound, nurses saw something strange.

At first, the procedure was normal. The technicians operated the equipment, collected the images, and Rebecca waited. That’s when Rebecca began feeling nervous.

“They had me there for a long time and I could tell they had seen something on the scan,” she told the Daily Mail in 2015. In fact, they had, but Rebecca could never have guessed what it was. “I was convinced it was something wrong with my boy.”

Then, the nurses reentered the room and presented Rebecca with one of the images. It showed her healthy baby boy, curled up just like he was supposed to be. It also showed something else—in the upper left corner of the image, a human face seemed to be peering down on the baby.

Liverpool Echo

“I very much believe—and know—that that’s my mum’s face,” Rebecca tells Urbo. “100 percent and always, everyday.”

How is she so sure?

“My mum did tell me this was going to happen when she was passing,” she says. “It’s crazy, but true!”

Sharon passed away shortly before her grandchild was born. Rebecca believes her mother held onto life to try to meet the new baby.

“He was born three weeks early on my baby shower by c-section in 50 minutes,” she says. “It was on the day my mother was told she had three weeks to live, the year before…Now, she’s at rest, with a lot more people that love her very, very much.”

In a strange way, this ultrasound seemed like an answer to Rebecca’s prayers.

She and her seven siblings all agreed that they felt their mother’s presence after she passed, but what Rebecca truly wanted was to see her mom’s face one more time.

People say that [mothers] teach us everything, but not how to live without them.

Rebecca felt that her mother was looking down on her.

“This is her 14th grandchild,” she says, “and she has been there for everyone.”

Melia Becky/Facebook

Rebecca wanted to tell the world about her experience. She posted the images online and contacted a news organization via social media, which eventually led to the piece in The Daily Mail.

“I wanted to share this story to bring comfort to others who have lost their loved ones and show this is proof that loved ones who have died may not be seen, but they are still here,” she told the paper in 2015.

Sharon Melia (Melia Becky/Facebook)

Today, she stands by that sentiment.

“[To people who’ve recently lost a loved one], I’d like to say—they may not be there to be seen, but they’re never gone. They’re always felt, always getting us through. My mum said it would take a lot more than being dead to keep a good mother down. People say that [mothers] teach us everything, but not how to live without them. Well, she gave me the tools of life, so she did teach me.”

Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for the image. For people like Rebecca, that explanation is incidental, and we’re certainly respectful of her beliefs.

With that said, if you’re inclined to read a story like this and wonder what psychologists would say, well, we’ve got you covered.

Psychologists point to a mental phenomenon called pareidolia.

Essentially, pareidolia occurs when the human brain sees a pattern that doesn’t actually exist. If you’ve ever heard a secret message when you played a song backwards or if you’ve heard strange whispers in another room while you’re drifting off to sleep, you’ve probably encountered pareidolia.

Humans seem particularly prone to seeing “faces” in inanimate objects.

In 2008, a Jefferson County, Missouri, woman found a Cheeto reminiscent of the crucifixion, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (Andrew Janson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Face pareidolia is “the illusory perception of non-existent faces,” wrote Alice Mado Proverbio, head of Cognitive Electrophysiology lab, at the University of Milano-Bicocca, in a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

“Sometimes, while observing the clouds in the sky, coffee foam, or random decorative patterns, it is possible to be struck by the impression of clearly perceiving a face that is so well-defined and yet so illusory.”

The effect can be fairly dramatic, simply because humans have evolved to recognize faces. Face-like objects spark deeply-rooted cognitive processes, allowing people to see eyes, noses, mouths, and other features instantly. Our brains are wired to recognize faces from birth, and sometimes those neural connections notice similar facial patterns in inanimate objects.

“There is a specific neural mechanism responsible for the recognition of human resemblances in things,” Proverbio tells Urbo.

“Because of its flexibility, it also responds to [patterns] very similar to faces; for example, it responds to face-like configurations consisting of two darks spots for the eyes and a central darker area for the mouth, on a light circular pattern.” Ultrasounds, of course, mostly consist of those dark spots.

Certain people are more inclined to see faces.

Proverbio and her colleagues conducted a study to learn more about the specific neural structure responsible for this anthropomorphization. They found that women are more inclined to see faces in objects compared to their male counterparts.

This might be an explanation for certain women “seeing” relative’s faces, or religious figures in ultrasounds.

Marta Tycinska/Flickr

“If women are more prone to see angels in clouds and food (no scientific evidence of that either), this might very well due to their sensitivity to faces, and/or to a strong feeling and desire to see the resemblance of deceased beloved persons,” says Proverbio.

A different study on face recognition conducted by Tapani Riekki and Marjaana Lindeman from the University of Helsinki found that people with strong religious convictions or who believe in the paranormal are more prone to see faces in objects than non-believers.


In this particular story, there’s another factor at play: When looking at ultrasounds, people might be more inclined to see faces and other recognizable images, since they’re already trying to find the image of the baby. We couldn’t find any research supporting that theory directly, but it seems like a reasonable conclusion.

Besides, Rebecca certainly isn’t the only mother to see a recognizable image in her ultrasound.

In 2014, a London couple, Jon and Lindsay McHale, went for a 4D scan of their unborn daughter, Madison. They saw something in the scan that they immediately identified as a “guardian angel.”

“I like to think there is a relative watching over Madison, and we think the face looks a lot like my grandma Kathy,” Lindsay told the The Mirror at the time. The McHales tried to recreate the miracle during Lindsay’s second pregnancy, but apparently the angel was a one-time thing.


Kelly Lewis, 26, shared a picture of her ultrasound in January 2016. She wanted to offer an uplifting response to an ultrasound image then making the rounds on Reddit, in which a demonic figure seems to stand over a reclining baby.

The ultrasound image shows Lewis’ baby in grainy black and white. Above the infant’s stomach, there’s the clear image of a winged angel. Waves of energy seem to pass from the angel’s face toward the baby’s.


To skeptics, it’s another case of pareidolia—but Lewis isn’t a skeptic. She named the baby Harper, a reference to how angels are traditionally said to play the harp.

“[Harper] has a warmhearted, caring, and helpful personality,” Lewis told Today in 2016. “She also has the sweetest smile—it’s very angelic. I am truly blessed to have her.”

With all of that said, we certainly can’t discount the experiences of these parents.

While pareidolia seems to have deep neurological roots, we don’t see any issue with enjoying these types of stories on a few different levels. The science is interesting, but ultimately, these strange ultrasounds show something else: families learning how to adapt to major changes in their lives.

For her part, Rebecca takes great comfort in her belief that her mother is watching over her family. Her little boy, by the way, is doing well.

“He’s an amazing, clever little man,” she says.

Melia and her son (Melia Becky/Facebook)

Rebecca says that her mother continues to act as a guiding force in her life, and she’s optimistic that her unusual story will help others move through their grief. She also wants more people to know about her mother’s extraordinary kindness and patience.

“I would love to tell her story,” she says. “There’s so much to it, and [I believe] it could help others. That’s all my mum was about.”

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