Matter of Taste: Why it's fine to see Jesus in your toast

With an Harambe Cheeto selling for $100,000 on eBay, remember we're hardwired to see foods like that

Matter of Taste: Why it's fine to see Jesus in your toast

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If you thought that 2017, in an act of some kind of forward-moving benevolence, would bring about an end to the Harambe meme, the much-reported news that somebody bid $99,900 on a cheese-flavoured, cornmeal snack that looks like the infamously slain gorilla might be hard to swallow.

With the bidding starting at $11.99 on January 28th, an intense and quickly escalating competition between bargain hunters and collectables hoarders, jumping by the final 100 bucks at 6.53am on Tuesday morning.

Whether or not the happy owner of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto effigy will ever cough up remains to be seen, but the auction – and subsequent media coverage – has seen a micro-boom in the sporadic foods-that-kinda-look-like-things retail sector. So much so, that those who worry they’ve missed their chance to get in on the primate potato crisp craze can now bid on no fewer than 257 different apparitions of Harambe – many marked one of a kind.

How our brains work

The phenomenon of finding faces or animals when casting a casual glance at a cheese toasty or snack food is nothing new. Known as facial pareidolia, psychologists recognise it as a subset of apophenia, a catchall term that describes the experience of seeing meaningful patterns in even the most random or meaningless data. It doesn’t just apply to caramelised sliced pan fresh from a divine baptism in an Argos toaster, but also to figures emerging in cloud formations or riveted clothes hooks that look like scrappy octopuses.

From the Greek words ‘para’ (beyond) and ‘eidolon’ (form or image), pareidolia was once considered a symptom of a fractured psychosis, but now is money-grabbing Internet meme or delightful Twitter canine caught in a woody phantom zone. The neural basis of the phenomenon is not particularly well known, though Carl Sagan, famously wrote in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World that it was likely an evolutionary trait in mankind’s history.

“As soon as the infant can see, it recognises faces,” he wrote. “And we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognise a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”

The science part

In a 2011 experiment (which went on to win the IgNobel Prize), psychologists tested people’s ability to recognise faces hidden in images, finding they could easily spot them nine times out of ten. But when the face was taken away, and they were asked to find a face in a jumbled blur, 40% of the respondents still said they could.

Spirituality also plays a role, which explains why, for the most part, when stories about foodstuff with hidden icons make headlines, they’re often religious in nature. A 2013 study by Finnish researchers tested 47 people for pareidolia. Some were religious or open to the paranormal, others were sceptics. At the end of the test, those who believed in a higher power proved more likely to see a third of the holy trinity staring back out at them from a tortilla.

As the evolutionary development of man and ape go hand in hand, clasping onto a cheese-dust covered puff of fried corn and finding a neon orange idol of the gorilla the online world is still mourning seems about right. Shamelessly pivoting towards personal reward to the value of $100,000 also seems about right. After all, there’s been a second coming of the first US president in a chicken nugget that went for $8,000, a representation of the Christ in a chapatti that 20,000 Christians went on pilgrimage to see, as well as Debbie Duyser’s Virgin Mary grill cheese sandwich, the Guinness world record holder for the most expensive sandwich ever sold at auction.

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