Three questions about pareidolia, our brain’s ability to see through a bear’s head on Mars

Three questions about pareidolia, our brain’s ability to see through a bear’s head on Mars

These optical illusions are common when looking at celestial bodies or everyday objects. They are explained by our brain’s natural tendency to make sense of random shapes.

The picture, rather bland, is defiant at first sight. NASA released an image of the surface of Mars on January 25 that shows a geological formation reminiscent of a bear’s head. It is not an inscription, not a sculpture, not a geoglyph, this one Traced patterns on the ground, visible from a great height, like the famous Nazca Lines in Peru. According to scientists from the US space agency, what looks like a muzzle comes from a “collapsed hill” or gutted after a “volcanic event” which may cause “mud or lava flows”. Where a lot of eyes pop out, you actually have to see “two holes”. The circle that draws the outline of the head is a “circular fracture” Defined, there too, by deposits of lava or clay. Eureka, but of course!

This phenomenon has a name, as poetic as it is technical: pareidolia. Franceinfo returns to this natural mechanism.

1 What is pareidolia?

It is our brain’s ability to identify familiar shapes in natural or random elements, depending on CNRS or eveninsermLike when you see the silhouette of an animal while looking at the clouds. Very often, these are human faces. “For the brain, faces are special things. It has a special gift for detecting, analyzing and recognizing them: it is much more developed than other things.”explained to the Swiss daily the timein 2015, Patrick Vuelumier, a neuroscientist at the University of Geneva. “A large part of the visual brain is actually dedicated to recognizing people, and faces in particular. There are a large number of neurons that do this function.”

To distinguish a face, our brain only needs two eyes and a mouth, not even a nose, as Australian researcher Colin Palmer stated in 2020 in an article published by the journal. psychology (in English). he belongs On the University of Sydney website (in English) This power is related to the fact that humans are a particularly social animal and that their interactions depend to a large extent on recognizing faces and their expressions. This ability would have also allowed him to survive by detecting potential dangers.

“There’s an evolutionary advantage to being really good or really good at detecting faces. It’s socially important to us. It’s important for detecting predators as well.”

Colin Palmer, psychology researcher

In a statement from the University of Sydney

In general, associating images and ideas with arbitrary shapes is used in certain assessments, remember France Inter In 2013, with reference to the Rorschach test, a personality test based on the visual perception of the patient, who must say what the ink spots evoke for him.

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2 Is this phenomenon common?

Totally normal, it’s very common. Back to Mars and Bear’s Head, there’s a smiley face that’s also present on the Red Planet: It’s Galle Crater, also known as “Happy Face Crater” (“crater at Happy Face” in French) with a diameter of up to 230 km.

Galle crater on Mars, also nicknamed "Crater happy face".  (NASA/JPL/MALIN SPACE SYSTEMS)

But the elements seen on the Red Planet are not limited to faces. In 2015, some thought they had seen a flying spoon. In fact, it was a rock formed, polished, and shaped by erosion.

An image of the surface of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover on August 30, 2015 (JPL-CALTECH/NASA)

In other old footage, some have seen a lizard or sandals. An image taken by the Curiosity rover in 2022 showed a landscape with, we guessed, an intriguing “door.” But it is most likely a hole dug by fissures in the rock.

Image taken by Curiosity rover on Mars on May 7, 2022 (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS)

Outside of the state of Mars, observing the universe is an infinite source of pareidolia. NASA, for example, has published an image of the sun with what can be seen as smiling.

Outside our solar system, pareidolia’s possibilities don’t diminish either. In 2015, NASA revealed an image of a group of galaxies, dubbing it the “Cheshire Cat” for its resemblance to the animal Lewis Carroll imagined in Alice in Wonderland.

the "predatory cat" UNVEILED BY NASA, NOVEMBER 23, 2015 (CHANDRA X-RAY OBSERVATORY CENTER / NASA)

The examples are so many that French astrophysicist Eric Lagadec dedicated a series of messages on Twitter to her, just over a year ago.

Of course, this tendency to see familiar faces and figures everywhere is not limited to observing the universe. It also concerns everyday things. on the Flickr photo platform, Set numbering about 7 000 members It collects 27,000 images of faces seen in facades, logs, rocks, or even locks. It is also found in pintereston me Imgur and on social networks where some accounts specialize in sharing similar content. “This kayak will eat you.”Writes the account of faces in things.

Potatoes can provoke a seal And a sad face can hide in a cup of coffee.

The image of the cardboard emerging from a recycling bin in Paris spread around the world as Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017. However, the image was taken in 2014. “Garbage can make you think of a character, but, at the time, there was no association with Donald Trump. Besides, he wasn’t even in the news.”explained to TF1 Graphic designer Thomas Rijmbal.

3 Could it be a meaning other than sight?

Yes, there is also auditory or vocal pareidolia. The many funny examples that many YouTubers or radio hosts use relate to songs (often in English) that may sound like they’re sung in French with unexpected lyrics. This ranges from rock band Scorpions who will be releasing: “Tonight I have stinky feet.”In a place “So strong that I can’t get over it” (“So strong I can’t get through it”in French), Gipsy kings who will say: So beware that it comes down from above. In a place Pero el destino te Ha Desmparado (But fate left you.in French) Or rapper KRS who was cheering “police killers” In a place This is the sound of the police. (It’s police noise.in French).

For sound and image, it is a distortion of our brain that seeks to interpret what it captures in an understandable way. Remember all this French culturerefers to the concept of apophenia, It is generally the act of interpreting and perceiving the chaotic grouping of information“.

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