…well, okay I personally haven’t seen Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, but there have been those who claim they did. Reports of people seeing religious figures in random, mundane objects are pretty common–there’s even a cottage industry of shilling such objects to believers on EBay. Now the rest of us might snicker and shake our heads, thinking to ourselves that people are nuts and going on about our business. But hold on! This phenomena isn’t confined to a few who let wishful thinking and/or strong religious beliefs cloud what would otherwise be a functional rational capacity. Tell me: did you ever lay on the cool grass as a kid and stare at the clouds? What did you see? Perhaps a cloud that looked like a horse? How about a face? Have you ever been sitting in a doctor’s office, bored, staring at the chintzy wallpaper when all of a sudden you find a face staring back at you?
I know I have. I’ve seen faces in all sorts of random things. It turns out that this phenomena isn’t the result of some sort of mental misfiring, but rather it is part of our wiring. It is a phenomena called pareidolia, which is characterized by people perceiving random stimulus as significant, when really they aren’t. Basically, our brain is a categorizing machine. It despises random crap, and tries to assert order over the deluge of data constantly coming into it. Now this can lead to some odd associations; for example, baseball players are famously superstitious. Many have good luck charms or rituals that they swear by. This is a case of faulty correlation; a player happens to wear pink socks the day he hits five homers, and in his mind he associates the success with the pink socks. Really, we all know the hue of his socks has nothing to do with how well he hit, but the correlation is there nevertheless.
Now we know how the sometimes bizarre superstitions arise, but what does that have to do with an old lady seeing the Virgin Mary in her morning toast? Well, as I said, humans are pattern seeking animals. There is one pattern whose daily discernment is most crucial to our survival, even today–other people. Think about it. You can see a person’s face and instantly know whether they’re angry, happy, sad, or anything in between. Sure there is room for error there, but most people aren’t that great at controlling their facial expressions. Besides, when making a snap decision as to whether someone is going to smack you in the face with a brick and take your wallet, you’re probably not going to stop and ask how they’re feeling. Point being, for the last 2 million years of hominid existence, humans and their ancestors have had to be good at reading others. Which has made us good at picking out faces, even where there may not actually be any.
So, the next time someone sees the Pope in a fried ham and cheese sandwich, don’t be too quick to judge. They’re only being tricked by 2 million years of evolution.