Read about the phenomenon known as Pareidolia


Q: Why do we see weird things on Mars?  A: Pareidolia

We’ve all read the articles about someone seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. You’ve probably spent some time looking at the clouds, seeing a rabbit, a ship or your Uncle George. Of course, one of the most famous examples is the “Face on Mars” found in the Cydonia region of the planet.

The phenomenon, known as Pareidolia

As you can see, it’s not actually a face at all, but just another example of the way our perceptions can sometimes fool us. The phenomenon of seeing distinct patterns in randomness is known as pareidolia. It’s probably a vestige of our evolution, where rapidly recognising familiar objects such as human faces or animals provided a survival advantage. Since a false positive (seeing a tiger where there is none) only wastes time and doesn’t kill you, it makes sense that we would evolve to err on the side of caution. It also makes sense that as social animals we are attuned to pay attention to faces, and so we seem them everywhere.

Which is why, now that we have high quality camera equipment on the surface of Mars, we are seeing all sorts of “strange” structures there. From spoons to mermaids.

Interestingly we see things that we are primed for. Things from our experiences that our brains have stored patterns for. We never hear of someone who had never heard of Jesus seeing his face in toast, for example. In part, this is a rationale behind the (scientifically dubious) Rorschach inkblot test. The idea is that whatever pattern you see in the random shapes, comes from your psyche and so says something about it, which is reasonable in principle, but it would be a stretch to say it gives us insight into the mind.

The interesting thing about pareidolia is that other people often won’t see the same thing until primed. If you tell them beforehand that it looks like a spoon or a mermaid they’ll see it pretty quickly, but otherwise it might just look like nothing or something else entirely.

The phenomenon known as Pareidolia

So in short, if you think of Mars as a big inkblot test you’ll understand why we see reports of weird structures. The same goes for the much more familiar man in the moon.

So before you jump to the conclusion that what you think you saw is what you actually saw, think about illusions like pareidolia. A trick of the mind is usually the more likely explanation.

PICTURE: Pareidolias of the Moon by D.Helber CC-BY-SA

By Jennifer Haygate