I cooked an omelet today and found Elvis staring up at me. Not literally, of course. It was just his image in the eggs. I should have saved it and tried to sell it on ebay, like the woman who found the Virgin Mary in her cheese sandwich and sold it for $28,000. I’m not sure if Elvis would fetch as much, but even a few grand would be nice.

It seems that no matter where you look – the clouds, the grain in the wood, the kitchen tiles – you find faces or animals or trees. The whole world is a Rorschach Inkblot Test offering a glimpse into your psyche.

The most common images we see are faces. Recognizing faces is hardwired into our brains. Infants develop this skill as soon as they can see. So it’s not surprising that we see faces in the snowy hillside or in the rocks on Mars. The meaning we give to these faces, however, depends where they are located and whose face they resemble.

In 1976, when Viking 1 sent back images of Mars, people saw a humanoid face in the landscape and speculated that it was evidence of a Martian civilization. The Mars Express disproved the myth with higher resolution photos that revealed the face to be nothing but an optical illusion.

Getting right up close to the face, however, doesn’t always dissuade the true believers. The Virgin Mary cheese sandwich is a prime example. If you cut through the trunk of a tree and find an image that resembles Michael Jackson, you’d probably consider it an amusing coincidence. But if that image resembles deity, suddenly it’s a miracle. In fact, it doesn’t even have to truly look like the deity to be considered a miracle. Yes, I can make out a face in the cheese sandwich, but does it really look like the Virgin Mary? Do we even know what the Virgin Mary looked like?

The water stains on the windows of the Seminole Finance Company in Clearwater, Florida, and the knot in the tree trunk in Sleepy Hollow, New York, resemble Our Lady of Guadalupe, an icon of the Virgin Mary. Thus, many people view them as signs from God. Both of these images existed long before someone pointed out the resemblance. That’s often the case. We don’t see the similarity until someone shows us what we’re supposed to be looking for. We can then use our imaginations and fill in the missing details.

Such images give people hope. Crowds flock to these miracles and often weep at the sight. Many believe the apparitions hold mystical powers. And it isn’t just Jesus and Mary that cures the afflicted. Sometimes it’s a demon. A recent news story told of a man who looked at his wedding photos eight years after they were taken and saw a demon peering over his left shoulder. The sight convinced him to straighten up his life and liberate himself from drugs. Oddly, the demon took on the appearance of a dog. When I look at the photo, I think it is indeed a dog. He claims there wasn’t a dog at the wedding. Then again, the photo was taken eight years ago and he was on drugs at the time. So yes, I’m skeptical of the whole demon scenario, but if it convinced him to better himself, then we’ll just say it’s a demon.

What we see reflects our beliefs. As I mentioned in my article on subjective validation, we see what we expect to see and interpret the world according to our personal belief system. Those who believe in aliens may not buy into the scientific explanation of the face on Mars or may think the government is trying to cover up their real findings. Religionists are more likely to see Jesus in the clouds or the Virgin Mary in the woodwork and feel it’s a sign from God.

Psychologists refer to this as pareidolia, which basically means we see patterns and assign significance to them even though they are actually meaningless. We look at an inkblot and see a butterfly when in reality it’s an image of absolutely nothing. We’re merely trying to make sense of things that make no sense.

What are your thoughts? Are apparitions of deity coincidental or the work of God? Can these apparitions have genuine healing power or is it merely the placebo effect?