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Science explains why people see faces where there are none

Christophe Haubursin is a senior producer for the Vox video team. Since joining the team in 2016, he has produced for Vox’s YouTube channel and Emmy-nominated shows Glad You Asked and Explained.

You know the story — someone sees the image of Jesus burned into a piece of toast, the story makes the local news, and it goes viral. Pareidolia, the process by which the mind perceives a familiar pattern where there is none, results from our search for meaning in random information. Today it's the subject of research into how the human brain recognizes faces as well as it does.

Stories about these kinds of sightings are hard to miss — one made international headlines for its hefty eBay price tag, and another was enshrined in its own altar in Mexico this year.

It’s a similar idea to when people listen to songs backward in order to hear hidden "backmasked" messages. This process has long been used to understand the human brain’s perceptive capabilities, and served as the basis of popular psychological evaluation tests.

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But the religious twist that often characterizes these cases isn’t random. Recent research has shown that religious and paranormal believers are more prone to interpret faces in random patterns than nonbelievers.


Check out the video above to learn more about this uniquely human phenomenon, and find more Vox Videos on our Youtube channel.


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