Pareidolia: What Does an Enormous Face Found on Mars Say About the Human Brain?
This isn't the ramblings of that crazy-looking dude who goes on Ancient Aliens and says that space travelers gave the Wright Brothers the idea to not make such stupid-looking airplanes. This is cold-hard fact: in the Cydonia region of Mars, our planetary neighbor, NASA scientists have captured picture of what seems to be a gigantic face, one-mile across in its size, with two very distinct sunken sockets where its eyes should be, the imprint of a nose, and two lips that look...well... a little too much like ours. Appropriately, the giant structure has come to be known by scientist and enthusiast alike as the Face on Mars.
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Since the Face on Mars was first imaged in 1976, it's rippled through the consciousnesses of many a head-cocked artist. It has appeared in Final Fantasy Games, DC Comics, and even an episode or two of The X-Files and Futurama-- just to name a few. Even famous astronomer Carl Sagan weighed in on the face in his book The Demon-Haunted World, wherein he dedicated at least half-a-chapter to its debunking. Still, in spite of whether or not you side with the scientists who correctly contend that we have no reason to believe that the structure is anything but naturally occurring, or even if you're more of an Agent Mulder and you think the truth is out there in the form of a giant, intelligently produced, planetary countenance, one thing is pretty much indisputable: this face really, really looks like a face. And that's unsettling.
But before you go looking for what could have possibly caused the structure to appear, you should first take a look at what's doing the looking. Why do we see face-like structures could have possibility occurred? Are we paranoid, lonely, or just bored?
No need to sink to the depths of your soul, my friend. Neurologists and psychologists call this phenomenon pareidolia, and it's why you see bunnies in the clouds and ancient alien civilizations on Mars. The phenomenon is defined by a vague and random stimulus-- often an image our eyes see or a sound our ears here-- being perceived as of the utmost importance by our mind. It's why we sometimes think we've seen a happy face in our electrical outlet, or why we think that if we play Stairway to Heaven backwards, we hear an escalator to hell.
Sure, now we know what it's called, but why the heck does it happen? For that explanation, we can look again to Carl Sagan, who hypothesized that pareidolia emerged as one of many survival techniques, like fight-or-flight syndrome. In other words, humans are programmed from birth to identify what is and what is not a human face, and in this ability to discriminate, they can distinguish with split-second accuracy between foe and friend, predator/prey and compatriot. Additionally, because we can recognize faces just from minimal details (impressionistic outlines, a la The Face on Mars), we're able to determine what is and isn't a human face from a great distance, or in poor visibility.
It also leads to some humorous historical anecdotes, like how Sagan writes that Heikegani crabs' resembling Samurai led to their being spared from capture.
And of course, to our famous, giant white face on our famous, giant red neighbor.
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