It may not be immediately obvious to everyone, but one family are convinced they can see the face of Jesus on the lid of a jar of Marmite.
It’s not often that you look at your meal to find it staring back at you. But when Diane Duyser picked up her cheese toastie, she was in for a shock. “I went to take a bite out of it, and then I saw this lady looking back at me,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “It scared me at first.”
We are primed to see faces in every corner of the visual world. — Kang Lee, University of Toronto
As word got around, it soon began to spark more attention, and eventually a casino paid Duyser $28,000 to exhibit the toasted sandwich. For many, the woman’s soft, full features and serene expression recalls famous depictions of the Virgin Mary. But I’ve always thought the curled hair, parted lips and heavy eyelids evoke a more modern idol.
Whichever Madonna you think you can see, she joins good company; Jesus has also been seen in toast, as well as a taco, a pancake and a banana peel, while Buzzfeed recently ran photos of peppers that look like British politicians.
“If someone reports seeing Jesus in a piece of toast, you’d think they must be nuts,” says Kang Lee, at the University of Toronto, Canada. “But it’s very pervasive… We are primed to see faces in every corner of the visual world.” Lee has shown that rather than being a result of divine intervention.
While the Austrian legal system does not make provision for US-style class actions, Mr Schrems is working round this by getting the other participants to transfer their financial claims to him, which is permitted.
Facebook users can still register their interest in joining the legal action
If he wins he intends to share the money after delivering a 20% cut to a German firm that is funding the case.
While the promised payout might have helped him attract support, Mr Schrems says the money is a side-issue.
Instead, he explains, the dispute with Facebook is intended to be a “model case” that sets a precedent addressing the wider problem of tech firm developing products that comply with US laws, but are not adapted for other countries’ rules.
“It is not an epic fight with Facebook but more of a general question of where we are going and if we respect our fundamental rights in Europe,” he told the BBC.
“Right now I have the feeling that we love to point the finger at the US in Europe, and say they are not respecting our privacy. But the reality is that we don’t really do anything about it – we complain, then go home and drink beer.”
To test his hypothesis, Lee scanned participants’ brains as they looked at those images of grey “static”. As you would expect, Lee found high activity in the primary visual cortex as people started to pick apart the various aspects of an image, such as its colour or contour. But he also saw the frontal and occipital regions fire into action when the volunteers thought they saw a face, and these areas are thought to deal with higher-level thinking – such as planning, and memory. So this burst of activity may reflect the influence of expectation and experience, as predicted by Lee’s “top-down processing” theory. That, in turn, seems to have triggered a region called the right fusiform face area – the part of the brain that responds to actual faces, which may reflect the uncanny feeling that we are looking at a real thinking and feeling being. “If that’s activated, we know they really are ‘seeing’ a face,” says Lee.
That might explain why these faces produce the same subconscious reactions we have when we look at a real person. Last year, for instance, a team of Japanese researchers found that we begin to track the gaze of the phantom faces – in just the same way that we try to follow the eyes of a person in front of us. In other words, whenever you see this perplexed building giving the side eye, you might find an urge to see what’s making him gawp.
While Lee’s experiment helped to map out the circuits that may be involved, it doesn’t explain why we are so likely to see faces. One reason could just be that we see so many faces in our day-to-day lives, we’re expecting to see them everywhere.
“Starting from childhood, they are the most common stimuli that we encounter in everyday life,” says Lee.
There could also be deeper, evolutionary reasons for why we are especially prone to see faces. Human survival depends so heavily on others – whether we need their help, or fear their violence – that we need to react quickly and understand their motives. So the brain may be wired to quickly detect others whenever it can. If we occasionally make a mistake and see a face in tree bark, that’s less serious than failing to spot someone hiding in the bushes.