Kang Lee, a University of Toronto professor whose research indicates that sometimes what people believe can influence what they see.

Power of faith could mean believing is seeing

By 
  • May 15, 2014

TORONTO - The adage that seeing is believing is being questioned by recent science that suggests the opposite may also be true: believing is seeing.

Over the centuries, people have reported seeing visions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on everything from trees to toast and even on pancakes. Recent sightings in Canada have included people sure they could see the face of Jesus on a pennant hanging behind a church altar in Prince Edward Island and others seeing a likeness of the Virgin Mary on the bark of a Toronto tree.

What those reports may actually prove, however, is the power of faith.

Humans have a natural tendency to over-identify — even within random patterns — and that can contribute to religious sightings, said Colleen Shantz, a University of St. Michael’s College associate professor who has researched the cognitive science of religion.
“Evolution has left us humans with a high sensitivity to faces,” said Shantz.

She was responding to a study published in the April edition of Cortex, a peer-reviewed journal, that found that what people believe can influence what they see. Lead researcher Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto, calls this phenomenon “believing is seeing.”

His study used neuroscience to try to explain the “reality” behind people claiming to have spotted images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary — or even Elvis — on inanimate objects. He found that when people report seeing these images there is an “actual physical reality” in that they may see human features based on their own past experiences and biases. So for a devout Christian to see Christ or Mary is “perfectly normal.”

But what is the Church’s take on this phenomenon?

“The Church does not formally investigate these types of images,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto.
“If it prompts a discussion about faith, then that’s something that can be positive.

However, we need to be careful about popularizing these types of stories.”

In many cases, the motivation is not entirely pure such as when people are trying to sell images, he said. For example, in 2006 a man from Ohio listed a pancake, which he claimed displayed the face of Jesus, for sale on eBay. It reached a high bid of $15,000. Subsequently, it turned out to be a hoax.

This phenomenon known as “face pareidolia” isn’t due to an overactive imagination. It’s caused by the frontal cortex which helps generate expectations and sends signals to the posterior visual cortex to enhance the interpretation stimuli from the outside world, he explains.

But although the study’s hook focused on seeing religious faces, all the participants were not religious and the faces they saw were not necessarily of a religious nature. The study’s 20 participants were shown “pure noise” or pixellated images, and then it was suggested that 50 per cent of the images contained faces, while the other half did not. As a result of this suggestion, 35 per cent of the people reported seeing faces where faces did not exist, said Lee.

“I’m very confident that if I had a group of religious participants, such as devout Christians, and I told them to look for Jesus’ face, I’m pretty certain I would get the same kind of results,” said Lee. “It all depends on your past experiences and your expectations.”

These types of sightings don’t have much to do with faith, said Shantz.

“It has to do with previous exposure to images of Jesus,” she said.

The more neutral way to discuss the premise that seeing is believing is called enculturation.

“We’re immersed in meaning making all the time and things take on greater or lesser significance to us and, hence, are more available to us in situations,” she said.

(Santilli is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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