Media Releases

University of Toronto researchers find ‘Seeing Jesus in toast’ phenomenon perfectly normal

May 6, 2014

TORONTO, ON – Peo­ple who claim to see “Jesus in toast” may no longer be mocked in the future thanks to a new study by researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and part­ner insti­tu­tions in Chi­na.

Researchers have found that the phe­nom­e­non of “face parei­do­lia”– where onlook­ers report see­ing images of Jesus, Vir­gin Mary, or Elvis in objects such as toasts, shrouds, and clouds — is nor­mal and based on phys­i­cal caus­es.

“Most peo­ple think you have to be men­tal­ly abnor­mal to see these types of images, so indi­vid­u­als report­ing this phe­nom­e­non are often ridiculed”, says lead researcher Prof. Kang Lee of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Eric Jack­man Insti­tute of Child Study. “But our find­ings sug­gest that it’s com­mon for peo­ple to see non-exis­tent 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,” said Lee.

Although this phe­nom­e­non has been known for cen­turies, lit­tle is under­stood about the under­ly­ing neur­al mech­a­nisms that cause it. In the first study of its kind, researchers stud­ied brain scans and behav­iour­al respons­es to indi­vid­u­als see­ing faces and let­ters in dif­fer­ent pat­terns. They dis­cov­ered face paredil­ia isn’t due to a brain anom­aly or imag­i­na­tion but is caused by the com­bined work of the frontal cor­tex which helps gen­er­ate expec­ta­tions and sends sig­nals to the pos­te­ri­or visu­al cor­tex to enhance the inter­pre­ta­tion stim­uli from the out­side world.

Researchers also found that peo­ple can be led to see dif­fer­ent images — such as faces or words or let­ters — depend­ing on what they expect to see, which in turn acti­vates spe­cif­ic parts of the brain that process such images. See­ing “Jesus in toast” reflects our brain’s nor­mal func­tion­ing and the active role that the frontal cor­tex plays in visu­al per­cep­tion. Instead of the phrase “see­ing is believ­ing” the results sug­gest that “believ­ing is see­ing.”

The research was under­tak­en by researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Bei­jing Jiao­tong Uni­ver­si­ty, Xid­i­an Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Insti­tute of Automa­tion Chi­nese Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. The find­ings were pub­lished in the jour­nal Cor­tex.

Online link to the study:


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact: 

Kang Lee Ph.D.
Uni­ver­si­ty Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor
Dr. Eric Jack­man Insti­tute of Child Study, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Cell: 647–606-6849
Lan­guages spo­ken: Eng­lish, Man­darin

Dominic Ali
Media Rela­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-6974