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Seeing Jesus on toast isn't abnormal; it's a natural part of our brain's abilities

Courtesy: Kang Lee, University of Toronto

Courtesy: Kang Lee, University of Toronto


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Saturday, May 10, 2014, 7:00 AM - Look up into the sky. Do you see shapes in the clouds? A dog? A rabbit? An old man's wrinkled face? Look out into space to our next-door neighbor, and check out the face on Mars, or maybe Bigfoot or the Martian rat. Perhaps a little closer and see Wilma Flintstone on the Moon? Now, turn your eyes down to the plate in front of you. Is there a face staring up at you from the surface of your piece of toast? According to researchers, if you believe there is, you may see one, regardless of whether it's there or not.

The human brain is a powerful pattern recognition tool. This tool has allowed us to reach great heights of success as a species and develop impressive intellectual abilities to examine our universe. However, sometimes the tool works a bit too well. We look at random objects, and see images and patterns that aren't really there. This is known as pareidolia

According to a research group from the University of Toronto, 'facial pareidolia' is particularly strong in our minds. In a study recently published in the journal Cortex, participants were 'primed' by first being shown images of faces or letters that were obscured by noise, like the static you would see on a television with the cable unplugged. After that was done, the researchers then showed them a collection of images that were simply noise, with no intentional pattern to them at all, and were told that half of the images contained either the image of a face or a letter. When asked to identify which images held these hidden patterns, on average the participants reported seeing faces in 34 per cent of them and letters in 38 per cent of them, even though nothing was actually there.

"Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed," said Professor Kang Lee, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, according to a U of T news release. "But our findings suggest that it's common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there's only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face."

By scanning the subjects' brains via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the researchers were able to see that the phenomenon isn't abnormal at all. It's due to the parts of the brain that involve generating our expectations and controlling our vision (the frontal cortex and posterior visual cortex, respectively) working together to pick out the details needed to find the patterns the subjects were looking for in the noise. 

Therefore, rather than showing that 'seeing is believing', this research turns that around. Believing, it would seem, is seeing. 

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