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If You Think Only Kooks See Faces In A Piece Of Toast, This Study May Change Your Mind (PHOTOS)

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This 16 November, 2004 file photo shows a computer frame grab image from the Internet site eBay showing a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich up for auction that allegedly bears the likeness of the Virgin Mary.
This 16 November, 2004 file photo shows a computer frame grab image from the Internet site eBay showing a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich up for auction that allegedly bears the likeness of the Virgin Mary.

Ever seen the face of Jesus in a piece of toast? Some people have. And not just Jesus--and not just in toasted bread.

People perceive faces in all sorts of objects, from a shadowy face on Mars to President Kennedy in a rock formation to the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich (shown left).

Kooky, right? Maybe not. A new study shows that people see faces in random objects--a phenomenon known as face pareidolia--not because they're delusional but because the human brain is hard-wired to see faces even when they're not really there.

"Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed," study author Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, said in a written statement. "But our findings suggest that it's common for people to see nonexistent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there's only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face."

For the study, published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Cortex, 20 college students (10 male and 10 female) were shown hundreds of computer-generated random patterns of light and dark. The students were told that half of the "pure noise" patterns contained embedded faces or letters, though none actually did.

What happened? The students reported seeing faces 34 percent of the time and letters 38 percent of the time. Subsequent brain scans using functional MRI indicated that face pareidolia arises from a combination of activity in the brain's frontal cortex and in the posterior visual cortex.

And that's not all the study showed.

"Our study not only shows that people are readily misled to see things that do not exist but also they actually see things for real once they believe there is a face or a letter to see," Lee told The Huffington Post in an email. "Further, their brain scans show their visual cortex actually sees faces or letters."

What does it all mean? As the researchers wrote in the conclusion to their study, "This tendency to detect faces in ambiguous visual information is perhaps highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face."

So if you see faces in the images below, you're only normal.

nun bun
A cinnamon bun said to bear the likeness of Mother Teresa.

mars face
This photo taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter shows a face-like rock formation on Mars.

indian chief
Rock formation in the Canary Islands said to look like the head of a Native American chief wearing a headdress.

virgin mary
Pattern on window in Tampa, Fla. office building seems to show image of Virgin Mary.

jesus pareidolia
Some say they can see the face of Jesus on Mt. Diablo in California.

face pareidolia
Does this look a bit like SpongeBob's neighbor? The photographer thought so.

witchhead
This nebula looks a bit like a witch. No wonder it's called the Witch Head Nebula.

face pareidolia
Storefront in Washington, D.C.

mickey mouse
This grouping of craters on Mercury look a bit like Mickey Mouse.

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