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Jesus in Toast study wins Ig Nobel Prize for U of T's Kang Lee

Harvard University celebrates funny, thought-provoking research

see anyone you know? (photo by Young Sok Yun via Flickr)

University of Toronto professor Kang Lee has been awarded a 2014 Ig Nobel Prize for his study on the phenomenon of "face pareidolia" – where onlookers report seeing images of Jesus, Virgin Mary, or Elvis in objects such as toast, shrouds and clouds. 

The study, "Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia”, was published in the journal Cortex and concluded the phenomenon is normal and based on physical causes. Lee was the lead author of the study and conducted the research with partner institutions in China. (Read more about the study.)

"Despite the humorous nature of this award, you never know what this research could lead to in the future,” said Lee. “For example, it could be used to make warning signs easier to understand or to test babies’ brain functioning."

Produced by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research the Ig Nobels honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. They were awarded at Harvard University's historic Sanders Theatre September 18 before 1100 spectators.

Five genuine Nobel laureates were on hand to deliver the Ig Nobel prizes to the winners: Martin Chalfie (chemistry, 2008), Carol Greider (physiology or medicine, 2009), Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Rich Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993) and Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004).

Professor Herschbach was also given away in the Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.

Each new winner was permitted a maximum of 60 seconds to deliver an acceptance speech.The time limit was enforced by an implacable eight-year-old girl.

In his acceptance speech, Lee explained that the ‘Jesus in Toast’ research showed that human brains are completely normal if they see non-existent faces in everyday objects, and not being able to do so may indicate the brain lacks the ingredients for a vivid imagination.

"And I have some good news for those without a good imagination,” said Lee. "You can buy a Jesus toaster on eBay for just $49.99."

Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies, and editor of the "Annals of Improbable Research", closed the ceremony with his traditional sign-off, "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight – and especially if you did – better luck next year.”

September 19, 2014