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Way In

Seeing things

Not many months pass without someone getting into the tabloids by finding the face of Christ in a piece of toast, an oil stain or a children's illustrated Bible. Does this mean that religious people are gullible fools who can't tell the difference between the countenance divine and some random bit of breakfast?

A research paper published by  Tapani Riekki and others at Helsinki  University, seems to lean that way. The team collected pictures of trees, rocks and other non-human things, some of which they agreed had facelike patterns, and some didn't. They then showed them to 47 people, half of whom believed strongly in religion or the paranormal, half of whom were sceptics, and they asked them whether they saw faces or not.

The team reports that believers identified more face shapes, both correctly and incorrectly, than the non-believers. Their conclusion was that believers in the supernatural are more likely than unbelievers to see faces that aren't really there, supporting the idea that 'Paranormal beliefs are associated with a tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of inadequate evidence'.

Setting aside the smallness both of the sample and of the statistical differences between the two groups, there are some interesting assumptions here. Since believers did not think these really were faces, how were they 'incorrect'? Was it only because the sceptics who framed the test and decreed normality were unable to see what they saw? If believers see more faces in the clouds, could it not be that they are blessed with a richer imagination than sceptics, and that a sensitivity to things that can't be seen or measured is something to prize?