Why You’re Seeing Little Green Men

Eye Exam

You may have heard about the Martian crab this summer. If you didn’t, Google it.

NASA sent out a photo, as they do regularly, from the Mars Curiosity rover that, if you look at it closely, appears to show a giant crab in an overhang in a rock outcropping on the Red Planet.

The image lit up social media and media outlets. Surely this was proof of life on Mars. Unfortunately for those seeking proof of an Alien-esque “face hugger,” the crab is just another case of our eyes playing tricks on us.

The phenomenon is called pareidolia, the brain’s ability to see shapes in random objects. That’s how people see animals in clouds, Jesus’s face in a rug, Hitler in a JC Penney teapot … and crabs on Mars.

Is this just wishful seeing, or is there something else to pareidolla? Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research, is alerted to photos every day showing aliens and the like coming in from the various satellites and rovers out there exploring the planets. He explains pareidolia. “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. That’s why you may see a viper 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 pareidolia 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.

Your eyes can play tricks on you, but it behooves you to treat them with respect. With that in mind, when was your last eye exam? Call us at Griffeth, 435-843-8333 to schedule it.

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