Why People See Things That Aren’t There

You’ve seen the news stories — a woman in Kentucky sees the image of Jesus in her Velveeta, the Lock Ness Monster shows his head in Scotland, or an ad has some sinister image in the background.

The most recent case came over the first weekend of August where people saw a living crab on… wait for it… Mars.

Didn’t hear about it? Google it.

What seemed like a simple enough photo released by NASA from the Mars Curiosity Rover became an Internet sensation. Why? Because if you look closely in a rock outcropping you’ll see a giant crab.

The image lit up social media for two weeks and generated news stories across print and the web. Unfortunately for those seeking proof of an Alien-esque “face hugger,” the crab is just another case of our eyes playing tricks on us.

It’s a phenomenon called pareidolia, the brain’s ability to see shapes in random objects. Pareidolia is why people see crabs on Mars, Hitler in a teapot (wait for it…below), and Jesus in a sister’s angora sweater.

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research explained Pareidolia. He said he receives alerts virtually every day showing aliens in the photos coming in from the dozens of satellites and rovers out there exploring the universe. “Far from being a vision defect, pareidolia has a lot of survival value if you need to quickly spot predators in the jungle, for instance,” he said.

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society delved into pareidolia to try and discover the part of the brain that triggered seeing these images. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study found that two spots in the brain called the left and right fusiform gyrus are responsible. When they both react, an alarm sounds in the brain. Then there is some debate if it’s right, and sometimes a continued alarm sounds. That’s why you may see a snake in the image of a tree branch that turns out to be just a tree branch. Or a crab on Mars.

It may usually be a false alarm, but the one time it’s right, you’ll be glad.

But it can also make for comic relief. Just look at this 2013 JC Penney billboard for a teapot. No sooner was it posted than it was ridiculed on social media. Why? Do you see a teapot? Or Hitler?

Blame pareidolia.

If your eyes are doing more than seeing Hitler in a teapot, but something far more serious, give us a call at Mountain View Medical Center and let us have a look to be sure everything is OK. Call us at 907-328-2920 for an appointment.


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