June 30th, 2015
Sometimes, when you are bored or lonely, you look up at the clouds, and what do you see? An enormous giraffe, or maybe a bulky sailboat, or your uncle’s face. Not exactly of course, but something that looks like it anyway. NASA had a similar experience, when it noticed these elephant-shaped lava streams on Mars a few weeks ago.
To see something familiar in unfamiliar settings is called ‘pareidolia’, which literally means ‘faulty image’. Anyone who ever recognised family members or favourite pets in the shapes of clouds knows what it means.
Some scientists say that by making such faulty connections our brain makes us more sensitive to dangerous situations. For example, it can be advantageous for us to recognise a predator in some shadows before we actually see the predator.
‘Pareidolia’, however, can take many forms, and often occurs also in situations that do not signify any danger whatsoever. Think of the clouds, but also the mess in your attic or the spilled coffee on your sweater.
Apparently, we just do not like to live with meaningless forms. NASA would most certainly agree with this.
By Winnifred Jelier