The psychological phenomenon that causes some people to see a vague image of a face or figure in random objects is known as pareidolia. This is a type of apothenia, which is a more general term for observing patterns in random data. Pareidolia often occurs in people suffering from certain mental illnesses. But healthy people also have visual illusions, which is due to the structure of our brain.
Some common examples are seeing an image of Jesus in the clouds or a picture of a man on the surface of the moon. Seeing faces in random objects or patterns of light and shadow is an everyday occurrence. Our brain detects and emotionally reacts to these illusory images in the same way as real human faces.
Notable examples of pareidolia
A prime example of pareidolia and its association with religious images is the Shroud of Turin. This is a piece of cloth depicting a man many believe to be Jesus. The negative image was first seen in 1898 on a reverse photographic plate by amateur photographer Secondo Pia, who was allowed to photograph the shroud at an exhibition in the Turin Cathedral.
A woman from Miami posted on eBay a half-eaten toast with cheese, on which she saw the face of the Virgin Mary. She kept it for 10 years and sold it for $28,000.
Some visitors to St Mary’s Church in Rathcael, Ireland, believe that a stump outside the church bears the silhouette of the Virgin Mary.
A cinnamon roll featuring Mother Teresa was discovered at the Bongo Java Cafe in Belmont, USA. It was on display for about 10 years until it was stolen at Christmas in 2007.
Pictures taken in 1976 by the Viking 1 mission showed a face on Mars that could be the remains of an ancient civilization.
In 1977, the appearance of Jesus Christ on a flour cake set the international standard for miraculous sightings. It happened in the small American town of Lake Arthur. Maria Rubio saw a profile with a beard and a crown of thorns on a tortilla when she was preparing dinner for her husband.
In 2004, Steve Cragg, youth director of Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston, discovered popcorn that looked like Jesus praying.
Donna Lee from Toledo in the US saw a picture of Jesus on the dumplings she made on Palm Sunday in 2005.
In Singapore, a growth on a tree resembles a monkey, prompting worshipers to pay homage to the “Monkey God”.
Damage to Pedra da Gavea, a huge rock outside of Rio de Janeiro, is interpreted by many as a human face.
In 2012, people made a pilgrimage to the tree at 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue in West New York, New Jersey. There was a tree, the cut of which, according to some, was similar to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.