Different kind of chocolate factory. Credit: Cklaighe/Conversation composite
By Jordan Gaines Lewis, Penn State College of Medicine
I live in the city of Hershey, otherwise known as “the sweetest place on Earth” (registered trademark). I’m surrounded by references to chocolate everyday – from the smell of it in the air to Kiss-shaped street lamps to chocolate-brown paved roads. And yes – it’s a pretty sweet life.
The big stink
So when The Hershey Company recently unveiled their new logo, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.
That is, of course, until the Internet began comparing it to the poo emoji, popularized by Apple. Even after seeing the comparison, I still didn’t know what the big stink was about, so to speak.
But I did begin to wonder: why do some people immediately see a big, steaming turd when, obviously, it’s supposed to be a drop of chocolate topped with Hershey’s iconic Kiss flag?
Understanding the cognitive processes behind visual recognition can explain everything from Hershey Kiss poop emojis to why we perceive animals in clouds and Mother Mary’s face in a piece of toast.
How did our brain get from Kiss to poo?
When we look at an object, the light we take in converges onto the retina, the lining on the inner surface of the eye. This light triggers all sorts of chemical and electrical cascades, resulting in nerve impulses that are sent to the optic nerve. The optic nerve runs from just behind your eyes to the visual cortex of the brain. If you fold your hands behind your head and lean back in your chair, your palms are hovering over your visual cortex.Head by Shutterstock
The visual cortex tells us that the Hershey’s logo is shaped like a triangle and is dark with a light-colored background. But that’s about all that it tells us. The visual cortex must recruit other brain areas, called association areas, to make any sense of these shapes.
Neuroscientists recognize two major pathways involved in object recognition. The dorsal stream emanates from the visual cortex to the top and sides of the brain and recognizes where objects are located in space. It’s thanks to the dorsal stream that we see the little flag on top of the brown triangle.
The ventral stream, on the other hand, projects from the visual cortex to the underside of the brain. This pathway makes sense of the brown triangle and little flag and recognizes it as something we’ve seen before: a Hershey Kiss.
How does it do that, though? Actually, this ventral stream communicates with other areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and salience. In other words, we recognize the image as a Kiss because of its iconic shape, the way it stands out next to the text of the logo and, most importantly, because we have memories of seeing the candy before. For the same reasons, we also recognise the image as a poo emoji because of its silhouette, color, and because we’ve used it in text messages.Meddy Garnet, CC BY
Now here’s a fun fact: I actually don’t have a smartphone. (Shocking, I know.) So in addition to being surrounded by chocolate paraphernalia everyday in my town, my brain didn’t already have a sense of the poo emoji, so I wasn’t phased by the image. Not until the eyes were Photoshopped on, anyway.
Mike Wege, senior vice president and chief growth and marketing officer at The Hershey Company, said that the updated logo is an “expression of [their] progression to a modern, innovative company.”
Perhaps there’s no better indication of our modern world than comparing a 107-year-old candy to a steaming pile of poo with eyeballs that we send to our friends through cyberspace.
Jordan Gaines Lewis, Neuroscience Doctoral Candidate at Penn State College of Medicine, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.