If you’ve ever seen the silhouette of Bloody Mary in a broken mirror or come across a garbage bag and mistaken it for a black cat, don’t sweat it. You may be unlucky (or dead) for a really long time, but at least you’re not crazy! Kang Lee, a professor of psychology and a researcher at U of T, has published some research in the unusual field of face pareidolia, which helps to prove that such perceptions are, thankfully, normal. Lee was recently awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for Neuroscience for this research.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are a punny parody of the prestigious Nobel Prizes, and are awarded by the science humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research. According to the magazine, they are given out “for achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think” in the arts and sciences. Now in their 24th year, the prizes were handed out at a Nobel and Ig Nobel laureate-filled ceremony on Sept. 18th at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lee accepted the award alone on behalf of the full research team.

The paper “Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioural correlates of face pareidolia,” picked up a large amount of media and Internet buzz for its unconventional title and subject matter before its win, as well as after. Pareidolia is a perceptional phenomenon when a person sees something where it doesn’t actually exist, like when you can pick out images in clouds. Face pareidolia is therefore a phenomenon where faces are seen where they don’t actually exist. The study refers to a popular image that circulated on the Internet a few years prior, where the face of Jesus was discernable in the burnt parts on a piece of toast.

Lee has been involved in face processing research for many years prior to this study, but wanted more specific information about the connection between top-down and bottom-up neural processes. Bottom-up face processing, or the un-stimulated visual processing of faces by the visual cortex, is well researched.

Lee’s research inquiries began with the less-researched top-down processes involving the frontal cortex in illusory and non-illusory face perception, which occurs through a stimulus, or in this case, the suggestion of the presence of faces in images. All the participants were shown carefully generated white-noise images and told that there would be faces in them half of the time, with varying degrees of clarity.

When reading the research, one experimentation specification stuck out in a strange way. All the participants are right-handed, so you might wonder, is this some form of discrimination? Is this meant to ward off the evils that come with being left-handed? Alas, there is actually real science behind this decision. Lee said that right-handed people’s right visual cortexes more strongly correlate with face processing than the left side of the brain. This is important because the part of the brain being studied to find the link between bottom-up and top-down neural processes is the right fusiform face area (rFFA). This specification means right-handed subjects also exhibit greater rFFA activity, so it is easier to study the activity levels in the brains of these subjects. The researchers were able to conclude that the rFFA becomes active in any case where both the white noise image and the suggestion of faces resulted in a case of face pareidolia, thus proving all of our sanity. Yeah, we’re still imagining things, but at least we now know we’re hardwired to.  

The research recognizes that the complexity exhibited by the brain in face processing is something integral to human survival, since we rely so much on it for social interaction. Lee also acknowledges the usefulness of the research’s methodology in other neuroscientific experiments, saying, “it turns out our method can be used for creating new image manipulations for people with phobias. For example, some people may have a snake phobia, or a spider phobia. Our method can be used to see whether or not these individuals actually have … hyper-activated frontal cortexes or visual cortexes.” Basically, now that the mysteries of face pareidolia have been conquered, science can move on to creepier, crawlier things and help us understand and find ways of vanquishing them from our minds and the world.

Lee never thought his research would gain so much traction with the greater public, since it “was just kind of his pet project,” and that he was “doing it to really answer his own questions” about face pareidolia. Getting awarded for being curious certainly didn’t hurt either.

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