A cultural history of pareidolia
There’s an elevator in a building I frequent, and in the top corner of that elevator is a triangular camera that has what look like two little marks for eyes and a square for a serious or possibly horrified mouth. Whenever I’m on the elevator I notice it and find myself arranging my own face in that position, too, acknowledging the camera as, if not human, something that reminds me of humanity, of the way people not only look but also look at each other. Of course, it’s not just elevators that have faces (check out the #iseefaces hashtag). Clouds, those drunk octopus hooks upon which we hang our robes, the fronts of cars with their eye-headlights and mouth-grills, a building … if you look at them the right way, they might look back at you. And then there’s breakfast.
Of all the faces we confront as we make our way through the world, quite a lot of them appear on breakfast foods. Maybe this is because our brains still feel a little blurry and flexible and open in those early hours of the morning, when we haven’t entirely exchanged dreams for the structured banalities of daily life. Most people do eat breakfast of some sort, and when we’re tired our eyes end up downward-focused on our plate, and hey, check out how the granola scattered on the yogurt making it look like it’s smiling!
Breakfast lends itself to the task: Pancakes and Belgian waffles and lattes are especially good for some decorative facial flourishes; three fried eggs can quickly resemble two eyes and a nose on a pan; sprinkle brown sugar and raisins or almonds on your oatmeal for a poignant expression. But nothing compares to toast for these facial recognition moments, thanks to the element of surprise. Slip a few slices in the toaster, let it pop out, and holy moses, squint your eyes a little and there’s Justin Bieber on your bronzed breakfast bread! (There is also, in fact, a machine that allows you to burn your own selfie onto toast, because we live in a time where everything is both terrible and possible.)
The whole face-in-toast thing has long gone hand in hand with a certain kind of religious fervor, and that, I suppose, is because often people see Jesus’s face in toast. If it’s not him, it’s the visage of one of his buddies. Here’s a toasted cheese sandwich with the face of Virgin Mary that an internet casino bought for $28,000. (Even more remarkably, the sandwich never got moldy.) Here’s a chapati with the image of Christ burned into it, which “hundreds of Christian pilgrims and other curious onlookers” came to see. Here’s Jesus in some buttered cinnamon toast, a sign that helped the man who saw it answer important life questions, after which he planned to sell the toast on eBay, which is exactly where everyone shills their Jesus toast. And here is an article from Time that reports, according to a 2014 study, that it’s “perfectly normal” to see religious imagery in toast. Thank you, Jesus.
Not only is it normal to see Christ blazed into your bread, it’s pretty normal to see faces in everything around you. This is called “pareidolia,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Face pareidolia means those patterns you see turn into faces, and, according to Professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, who led the study cited by Time, it’s common. “Human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces,” he said in a statement, “so that even when there's only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.” This may even be evolutionarily beneficial: You’re alert, you’re processing, you’re seeing faces and imagining the conversation you could have with the elevator, which means something is not going to pop out of nowhere and eat you, probably.
On the down side, seeing a face in your toast doesn’t mean you’re super-creative; on the plus side, it doesn’t mean you’re having some kind of breakdown (in the old days, it was seen as a sign of psychosis). It’s a natural human reaction “caused by the combined work of the frontal cortex which helps generate expectations and sends signals to the posterior visual cortex to enhance the interpretation stimuli from the outside world,” per the University of Toronto statement, and it’s in part determined by what you hope or expect to see, i.e., pareidolia is the original fake news. In a way, it’s simply very human, and maybe a tad narcissistic: We have faces, and we like seeing them in other things—it’s a starting point for personality, relationships, everything else. Once you do see a face, you’re not going to stop seeing that face (it’s like the dress!). As Bruce Hood, author of The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity told the BBC, “That's one of the things about illusions, they have this remarkable tendency to formulate in your mind, and it's very difficult to unthink them.”
Some people are more likely to see faces than others,and there are some who don’t see them much at all—frowny face. According to a 2015 Japanese study, “the traits associated with the greatest likelihood of experiencing pareidolia were a neurotic personality and a positive mood,” writes Carolyn Gregoire for The Huffington Post. Also, “women were also more likely to see faces in the dots.” Another study from the University of Helsinki, as written about in LiveScience, found that religious people are more likely to see faces in ambiguous photos than atheists. Or at least they’re definitely more likely to see faces of Jesus, or how we think Jesus is supposed to look. After all, the face of Jesus you see in toast is probably based on stylistic depictions of Jesus over history and might not look anything like the actual Jesus. Does that mean your toast isn’t a miracle? Far be it from me to say.
This weekend, I instagrammed a photo of the eggs I was in the process of making and asked my Instagram followers what they saw in my breakfast Rorschach. Responses ranged from “skull” to “elephant” to “Trump” and “my future.” I saw a bleary-eyed King Cavalier spaniel (tell me I’m psychotic, if you must). All I know is, if I could go back in time, I would definitely bring some toast to sop up that yolk, because breakfast might have a face, but what’s far more important is that it’s delicious.