Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Jesus on Toast

By Tim Hannan

The human disposition to find meaning in random data is hard-wired in the brain.

The frequency with which religious imagery is discovered in everyday foods appears to be on the increase. While it remains possible that these manifestations are harbingers of the imminent apocalypse, neuroscientific investigations are converging on a more earthly explanation involving a combination of neuropsychological dispositions and people’s beliefs and expectations.

In recent years, the face of Jesus has been spotted on various food items around the world, including pita bread, breakfast tacos, naan bread, potato chips, fish sticks, pancakes, pizza and ice cream. A Welsh family located his face on the underside of the lid of a Marmite jar, while his crucified form has been observed in bananas, apples, oranges and pretzels. Perhaps most famously, the face of the Madonna was discovered by an American woman on a toasted cheese sandwich, a find rewarded by a healthy price on eBay.

Religious imagery has also been noticed in natural phenomena. The Arabic words Allahu Akbar were reported to appear on a tree in Maiduguri, Nigeria, followed by discoveries of inscriptions on two other trees in the region. In Singapore, the formation of a mahogany tree was perceived to represent the monkey god of Chinese or Hindu mythology, and two nearby trees were found to reveal Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, and the elephant-headed god Ganesh.

The disposition to detect faces or other images in apparently random data is termed pareidolia, from the Greek words for “instead of” and “shape”. In a recent study published in Cortex, a team of Chinese and Canadian researchers performed functional MRI scans on participants who were instructed to look for either faces or letters in what was actually random visual “noise”. In each case, increased activity was detected in the posterior cortical regions associated with face recognition, and in the right frontal regions associated with higher-level cognitive processes. The authors interpreted these findings as supporting the theory that face processing is strongly influenced by “top-down” beliefs and expectations, so even the vaguest similarity of visual data to a face will trigger activation of the face recognition system. This hard-wired disposition is presumed to have evolved as an advantageous “fast and dirty” way of detecting the presence of other people or animals.

Popular interest in the phenomena of faces in food has been assisted through the marketing of novelty toasters, with one company marketing the product with the line: “As Jesus transcended Judaism, Jesus toaster’s appeal transcends Christian marketing by also bringing Atheists, Agnostics, Dirt Worshipers and more the joy of our Host on toast.” The human disposition to expect to observe meaningful objects has also been tapped by a number of so-called “projective tests” employed by less scientifically-oriented therapists. One example of this is the Rorschach inkblot test, which was designed to infer the thoughts of respondents from their responses to ambiguous visual stimuli in what could be labelled “directed pareidolia”.

Of course, pareidolia is not limited to spotting images of the divine in the mundane, with non-religious images also reportedly observed in foods, landscapes and manmade objects, from faces on the surface of the Moon to images of Hitler in buildings.

Nor is the phenomenon limited to the visual system. Some people have perceived messages when recorded music is played in reverse, with the best-known historical example being the claim that Paul McCartney’s death was announced in a hidden message on the Beatles’ White Album. This interest in hidden messages in songs was subsequently encouraged by numerous artists who deliberately used backmasking to entertain their listeners and/or to appease their personal dark lord. It has also been rumoured that playing Justin Bieber’s songs in reverse reveals actual musical ability.

Others find messages in random noise, which they attribute to supernatural causes. The electronic voice phenomenon movement claims that random sounds detected in audio recordings are communications from deceased persons or from extraterrestrials – or possibly from deceased extraterrestrials.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.