British Columbia

Can't unsee: Western Canadians find Trump's image in highway signs

Some travellers along western Canada's Yellowhead Highway have noticed the route's logo bears a resemblance to the U.S. president.

There's a psychological reason people are seeing the president in places he shouldn't be

The Yellowhead Highway logo is based on Pierre Bostonais, a 19th century Iroquois-Métis trapper and trader who gained the nickname "Tête Jaune" because of his distinctive shocks of blond hair. (Logo: Yellowhead Highway Association. Trump: Mike Segar, Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Some travellers along western Canada's Yellowhead Highway have noticed the route's logo bears a striking resemblance to U.S. President Donald Trump — and there's a good psychological reason behind it, according to experts.

"It's freaky how much it really looks like him," said Winnipeg singer-songwriter Scott Nolan, who pointed out the similarities on social media. 

Can you believe that Donald Trump? He's insisted we put him on all of our Canadian highway markers- Singer-songwriter Scott Nolan

The logo depicts a yellow silhouette of a man's head, with a distinctive tuft of hair on top.

Nolan was on tour with a friend when he noticed the resemblance.

"We're used to kind of messing with each other and I said to him, 'God, can you believe that Donald Trump? He's insisted we put him on all of our Canadian highway markers,' and my friend had a fit," Nolan recalled.

"It was hysterical."

Pleased with his prank, Nolan started telling the story during performances.

Soon he heard from audience members who also saw the similarity.

"I had people write me from all over rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba going, 'Oh my God!' " he laughed. "Once you kind of put it out there, people go, 'Oh my God, that really is it.

"I won't ever be able to unsee it."

Listen to Nolan pull his prank.

He isn't alone. In a Facebook group for sharing highway conditions, users have joked about the similarities.

"I will never be able to drive along this highway without feeling like I'm being watched," wrote one member.

The Yellowhead Highway stretches from Massett, on B.C.'s Haida Gwaii along Highway 16 east to Manitoba where it joins TransCanada Highway 1 before terminating in Winnipeg. (Google Streetview)

What's happening is a textbook example of "face pareidolia," according to University of Toronto professor and neuroscience researcher Kang Lee.

"[Face] pareidolia is a phenomenon whereby we see faces in everyday objects ... like the man in the moon," he said.

"Our brains are searching for images or meaning ... so the brain misinterprets some noises in our visual cortex and we think we have seen something that actually does not exist."

Lee's research has shown that the 'Jesus in toast' phenomena is caused by a normal interaction between two distinct regions of the brain known as 'face pareidolia'. (Fred Whan/The Associated press)

Lee said this is why we're able to recognize illustrations or TV images as human rather than just light and colour.

He also said we're more predisposed to seeing well-known figures, such as the hyper-newsworthy president of the United States.

U.S. psychology professor Dr. Thomas Topino said seeing Trump in the logo was similar to optical illusions where people can interpret two distinct images from one illustration.

The illustration "My Wife and My Mother-In-Law" by William Ely Hill. Dr. Thomas Topino, who studies 'reversible ambiguous figures' , says the ability to see Trump in the Yellowhead Highway logo is likely activated by the same part of the brain that allows viewers to see this image as either a young woman or an old lady. (Wikimedia Commons)

"If one makes that connection, then you've established this link between this set of sensory cues and Donald Trump. The next time that you see this, it's going to be pretty inevitable that the Donald Trump interpretation is going to be activated," he said.

"Really, we can't unsee it."

There are several different versions of the Yellowhead logo, but all depict the same person. (Yellowhead Highway Association)

The logo is actually a depiction of Pierre Bostonais, a 19th century Iroquois-Métis trader who gained the nickname "Tête Jaune," or "Yellowhead," because of his distinctive blond hair — not entirely unlike Trump, whose coifs are a key part of his image.

"It's a bizarre connection, but if it helps raise the profile of the highway ... that's great," laughed John Wojcicki of the TransCanada Yellowhead Highway Association, which promotes travel along the route.

Wojcicki said he's received numerous messages asking about the resemblance of the logo to Trump, but given his knowledge of Bostonais, he's had a hard time seeing it himself.

"I suppose under the right light with the right angle, there could be a resemblance," he said. "Any similarities to any particular politician is coincidental."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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