Hundreds of people claim to see the face of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in the shape of their potato chips or burnt into their toast. But before you dismiss them as crazy, a recent study shows the phenomenon may not be as absurd as we think.

A team of researchers, led by a professor at the University of Toronto, found the phenomenon of “face pareidolia” is perfectly normal.

“I always thought that these people who saw the Virgin Mary in a rock or Jesus on toast were just crazy people, but apparently it’s an easily elicited phenomenon,”lead author Kang Lee told CTVNews.ca.

Lee has been studying imaging and facial processing for the last 10 years, but was still unnerved by how people could see faces or words that weren’t seemingly there.    

He was inspired to pursue a different way of testing facial processingby the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed the things we see are constructed and perceived based on our personal experiences and the information available to us at the time.

Instead of asking study participants to identify faces in photographs-- the favoured research method in facial processing-- Lee decided to do the opposite andoutright lie.

In two separate tests, participants were shown a series of random images which contained no distinguishable shapes or forms. They were told that half of them contained either a face or a letter.

“Our participants were quite gullible,” Lee said. “About 35 per cent of the time they saw faces in these images.”

Further testing was needed to ensure that gullibility didn’t get in the way of science, so Lee’s team mathematically compared the results and were able to reconstruct the faces and letters from the information provided by the participants.

When examining the neurological impacts of his tests, Lee found the right parts of the brain were activated to interpret visual images or text.

Usually, the inferior frontal gyrus, a pre-frontal lobe of the brain, is responsible for interpreting visual inputs from the posterior lobe of the brain. But in these cases, it was doing the opposite.

“Now we are finding that this area’s function is the other way around. It is sending information towards the visual area about our expectations of what to see,”Lee said.

In essence, Lee said the study suggests that seeing can be subjective. The brain can take what we think we should be seeing and make it appear.

Because human brains are “uniquely wired” to recognize faces, even when there is only “a slight suggestion” of facial features, our brains automatically interpret it as a face.

Lee is looking forward to further exploring the impact this research will have on the psychological, as well as the philosophical. He said understanding the link between perceived images and the brain has the potential to help those battling with mental illnesses or suffering from hallucinations.

“The questions I am wondering … is whether or not the neurosymetry we have identified in our study is the same as those with Schizophrenia,” he said.

Understanding how normal people process illusory face perception can tell us how to diagnose or treat people with these problems, like long-term drug abusers who have strong vivid hallucinations. It can help us understand these abnormal situations.”

But for Lee, one of the most exciting parts of this research is that proves that seeing isn’t just believing, rather “believing is also seeing.”