"We tend to think of visual perception of faces as a bottom up process: we see a face and then our brains interpret that information," professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto told CBC. "But what we have shown is that a lot of what we see and perceive is actually determined by biases that already exist in our brains before any external stimuli is actually processed by the brain."
Why then do people see Jesus so often? Voss said it has a lot to do with what's familiar to people. "We tend to find that people are very idiosyncratic in terms of what they see, and so there are few images that are universally meaningful," he said. "A greater portion of your visual system is devoted to recognizing a particular image if you have seen it many times before in your life."
By the same token, it may depend upon what you're thinking about most often. "If I'm always thinking about Jesus, I'm more likely to see Jesus in noise," Voss told me in an interview.
One hundred thirty years ago British general Charles Gordon looked out over the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and noticed a nearby hillock with a resemblance to a face in its rocky escarpment. Gordon, like a few others of that time, suggested the hillock was Golgotha—the place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified and where a nearby tomb was used to bury him.
Today the Garden Tomb, maintained by the British-based Garden Tomb Association, remains a popular place of peace and quiet refuge in modern Jerusalem, though most archaeologists believe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the true location of Jesus' crucifixion and burial.
In a similar way, the images of Jesus may give us peace and comfort but they are no substitute for a relationship with the real Jesus who lives in our hearts.
Gordon Govier is editor of Artifax.