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Scientists discover how the face of Jesus appears on toast

02 November 2012


Seeing things: a tree stump in Belfast City Cemetery, which was cut down two years ago, appears to show an "apparition" of the face of Jesus. The image was spotted in August, and is attract­ing visitors

Seeing things: a tree stump in Belfast City Cemetery, which was cut down two years ago, appears to show an "apparition" of the face of Jesus. The im...

RESEARCH scientists believe that they have located the area in the brain which is responsible for the way in which people see faces in inanimate objects. The work was carried out at Stanford University, California, and the results were published in The Journal of Neuroscience (24 October 2012).

The face of Mother Teresa in a bun or Jesus on a piece of toast regularly crops up in news stories. Now, work with brain scanners and electrodes has located two small areas of the brain which seem to be the place where faces, in particular, are recognised.

The researchers worked with a 45-year-old man who suffered from drug-resistant epilepsy, who had had electrodes implanted into his brain to try to overcome this. This enabled them to stimulate very small areas in an area low down towards the back of the brain, which has long been implicated in face recognition - the fusiform gyrus.

Earlier studies, using techniques that measured blood-flow in different parts of the brain, had shown that the fusiform gyrus is active when we see and identify faces. But this kind of brain scanning has been criticised because it is relatively coarse-grained in the detail that it shows, and also it cannot tell us what the active portions of the brains are doing.

Stimulation with electrodes is much more precise, and can be used to disrupt areas of interest to discover exactly what cognitive functions depend on them.

In this case, the researchers were able to disrupt the recognition of real faces. When the current was applied to the correct spot in the brain of the fully conscious patient, he immediately reported that the face of the scientist talking to him had become strangely distorted.

The effect was instantaneous, and is unnerving to watch. It can be seen in a film on the internet (http://bit. ly/W2uWjU). The patient says: "You just turned into somebody else. Your face metamorphosed. . . You almost look like somebody I've seen before, but somebody different. That was a trip. . . It's almost like the shape of your face, your features drooped."

The disruption of one small area did not stop the patient from seeing a human face, but it caused him to see a different one. This is further evidence that the process of face recognition is complex, and proceeds in stages.

The work also confirms the innate, subconscious nature of face recognition, and the way in which we cannot help seeing faces even when we know that they are not there. This has given rise to a number of Christian "sightings" of holy faces, with the subsequent veneration of foodstuffs. Muslims, however, tend to see words in Arabic script rather than faces.

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