Ep. 463: Pareidolia and the Moon

Have you seen the “Man in the Moon”? Pareidolia is your mind’s way of helping you make sense of the world, but doesn’t always match reality.

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Show Notes

Pareidolia on Wikipedia
Pareidolia on Mars
Rabbits on the Moon
More images on the moon
Toad on the Moon


Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 463. Pareidolia and the moon. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you, Fraser?
Fraser: Good. How was TwitchCon?
Pamela: It was fabulous! And as I was saying in the preshow they had sign up everywhere that said, “Bleed purple” and I’m thinking that because so many people had their hair dyed purple, which is amazing brand strategy commitment, all the things, people actually bleed purple all over the showers. But beyond that, that’s like my personal amusement, there were so many people, so many amazing technologist there. I watched a woman, NubCat is her channel, who did live coding of an IRC bot and a twitch overlay. And it’s like I just want to pair program with you forever.
So, yeah, it was awesome. All the coders, all the gaming, all of the art, all of the things that I’m kind of passionate about. All of there were there – and dyed purple.
Fraser: Right on. I’m gonna take just this quick intro just to remind everybody about the excellent Weekly Space Hangout that we do with our co-hosts, the three doctors, Morgan Rehnberg, Kimberly Cartier, and Paul M. Sutter. And this week’s guest was amazing. Dr. John Charles. He’s the chief scientist at NASA’s human resource program. So he is the person who makes sure that astronauts are healthy at NASA. As someone – it was an amazing interview. I got a chance to ask all of the questions that I always have and it was great.
If you’re not listening to the Weekly Space Hangout, highly recommend. Go ahead. You can subscribe to it whatever podcasts are found. And if you’re listening to it or if you listen to both, both for Astronomy Cast and the Weekly Space Hangout, if you could give us a rating on iTunes, that would mean the world to us and help other people find the work that we do
Pamela: And if you’re interested in discovering other podcasters, both our feed, the Weekly Space Hangout, and many others are aggregated at 365 Days of Astronomy. So, yeah, get all of us and enjoy all the content and I’m gonna give out a shout out to Fraser whose Guide to Space was once again nominated for Parsec. So kudos to you, Fraser.
Fraser: Here’s to the 4th Parsec in a row. The man in the moon, the pyramids on mars, every cloud ever. Humans have a tendency to pattern match when they’re looking around the universe. It’s called “pareidolia.” What causes this behavior and how can we use this to debunk some hilarious conspiracy theories. Alright, Pamela. When you put this into the docket you choose the moon, but man, I would say a good ten percent of my job is to let people know that no, that thing that they think they see is not what they think they see. And to sort of debunk stories that are going around. There’s a bunch of U.K. papers that do a bunch of this. So what is this idea of pareidolia?
Pamela: Basically human beings like many other mammals once upon a time had a problem with being eaten by tigers. And it turns out that if our brain is capable of seeing the tiger in the grass that is not actually in the grass, that false positive is way better than missing the tiger in the grass that wants you for dinner. So the human brain got really good at finding human faces, in finding all sorts of different patterns in things where those things just don’t exist. And this has led to a Glee episode that featured Jesus in grilled cheese. This has led to a blog post by our friend Phil Plait, who found Stalin on his shower curtain in steam. This has led to so many different things.
And it also has led to so many different stories and myths. The constellations on a certain level are kind of pareidolia but not quite. But man in the moon, that face that those of us living in North America see in the moon, that’s totally pareidolia. And there are so many stories from so many different cultures that see different things in the moon’s face that we picked that as a starting point. But I don’t think we’re necessarily going to end while still on the moon.
Fraser: Right, right. And so I think that’s the part that’s kind of useful for human evolution is this idea that as you said that we’re looking at trees, we’re looking at shrubs, and our brain is going, “Is that a saber tooth tiger? Is that a saber tooth tiger?” And you can see why. It’s a very important evolutionary trait for us to have gained. And there’s not really a big downside to it. Like, “Oh, no turns out that it’s not really a saber tooth tiger, but chances were that it could have been and if it was then I would have spotted it and I would have not gotten eaten.” But as always we live in this modern society with all kinds of things going on and sometimes it sort of messes with our brain.
So let’s talk about some of the things that people see in the moon. And that’s where you wanted to start but it’s definitely not where we’re going to end. But so what are the examples of things that people see in the moon?
Pamela: The main one is as I said is the old man in the moon where the lava flow, the mare is perceived to be two large eyes and a mouth making a face out of the moon. But that isn’t really the most prominent thing that people see. Rabbit is one of the things that comes up over and over and over again. Where people look at the moon and they see in the lava flow these two ears, a little face, a round body, and a tail that is kind of pointing towards that really big apparent crater down toward the south side of the moon.
And so bunny, hare, rabbit, whatever you want to call the bouncing two eared critter that exists on pretty much every continent except for Antarctica, bunnies are where it’s at pretty much everywhere in the world.
Fraser: I’m finding these images and I’m showing them on – to the people who are chatting. But the thing that’s hilarious is that people have actually seen multiple different kinds of bunnies. So I’ve actually got an image and I’m sorry to the folks who are the podcast listeners – maybe we can put this into the show notes – but there’s an image that shows a bunch of different bunnies. So it’s not just like there’s one. There’s multiple different ways that you can perceive the craters and if you really squint hard enough you can see different versions of the rabbit. It’s pretty funny.
Pamela: And beyond the rabbit just to go more reptilian or I guess amphibian in Chinese culture they see a toad instead. The toad is one of those things that once you see the toad you can never unsee the toad. Because it is essentially this happy little toad hanging out on the western edge of the moon with its little hands out in front of its little head. And it has some other rocks or something in front of it and I swear now that I’ve seen the Chinese toad in the moon I will never unsee it.
And there are folks that actually see a second toad as well, off to the eastern side that is stretched out mid-jump with its arms stretched out and it’s legs streaming out behind it. So there’s two toads happily frolicking across the face of the moon.
Fraser: And keep in mind that it’s all about perspective, right? The folks from the southern hemisphere see the moon upside down compared to us. Or perhaps we in the northern hemisphere see the moon upside down compared to you. Everything’s relative. I’m not going to take a stand on what’s the right way up in the universe. So I’ve got to assume that all of those faces and animals and things that we see when you flip everything upside down you see completely different shapes and structures.
Pamela: And this is where you look at things found by different cultures – rabbits pretty much you keep rotating the moon and those ears are just there like there’s a bunny here. You’re gonna see a bunny. But other features definitely. You don’t find the man in the moon in southern hemisphere cultures. This is where you start getting things like the crab in the moon. And the carb in the moon is one of the ones that comes from South Sea islanders where they see one of the blogs of lava as one large crabby claw. They see the biggest thing of lava as the back of the shell. And you can connect the smaller pieces of dark mare to get the different segments of the claw reaching out.
And it’s fabulous and just shows that there’s something in the human mind that demands that we find these patterns. As children we all found things in the clouds and it appears that across the millennia everyone has found things in the moon.
Fraser: So that’s the moon. Now I think where this probably hits home to a lot of people has been some of the conspiracy theories about other objects that are being seen on the moon. And people have seen, like cities. Right?
Pamela: So this actually starts to go back to Percival Lowell using his telescope to look at Mars and claiming that he was making out manmade canals. And over the years we’ve had people take photographic images of the moon, of Mars. And digital images taken by spacecraft. And in those early, low-resolution images they took mountains and claimed they were pyramids. And I think the structure that we’re most familiar with is there is a feature on Mars in the Cydonia region that they actually did an “In Search of” episode when I was a little kid with Leonard Nemoy narrating away about this face on Mars.
And when you look at the early low-resolution images, the way the shadows are cast, the way the mountain are structured it looks creepily like someone went all carvey on Mars and engraved a human face on this mountain range. But as we’ve gotten progressively better and better resolution images it’s become more and more clear that this is just normal, everyday mountainy feature that just happen to have an unfortunate resemblance when seen at low-res with the sun at just the right angle to looking like a human face. But really it looks no more like a face than the old man in the mountain in New Hampshire looked like a face. You can see it if you squint, but no one carved that.
Fraser: Right. And so the part that’s kind of hilarious or sad is that the conspiracy theorists took this very low-resolution image with this really harsh lighting and constructed an entire fantasy civilization on Mars to – and we have been dealing with the after effect of this. The conspiracy theories, the people writing to us to talk about this for decades. Still. Now that we’ve got these wonderful pictures – and I was able to show some to the audience – images from NASA’s Mars reconnaissance obiter that takes images at less than a meter’s resolution. It is clearly a rock. It’s clearly a mountain. There’s clearly no question to this. And yet it sort of generates this thing. And then there’s the pyramids on Mars as well. Same situation.
Pamela: And as we start studying craters, and we see this on a fairly regular basis on CosmoQuest where we volunteers going through and mapping out craters on the moon, Mars, Mercury, Vesta, people keep stumbling across snowmen in crater chains where you get three craters ordered by size in just the right way to look like Charlie Brown’s snowman. We find nearly infinite faces, smiley faces, emoticons, and it’s not just the craters, it’s also again lava flow seen zoomed in where people have found there’s an elephant out there. There’s an elephant formed out of lava.
Fraser: Right. And I think in recent times the part that sort of it’s kicked to the next level is you’ve got these images coming back from NASA’s Curiosity rover that is taking all of these high-resolution images of the landscape around it. It’s getting images of rocks and it’s seeing a vast array of different rocks and it’s moving so much and taking new pictures and moving and taking new pictures. And then NASA to its credit takes all this data and dumps it onto the internet where anyone who wants to can look through the raw images being taken from all these different cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover.
And of course people’s pattern matching, right? I wouldn’t be surprised if a person actually sees a saber toothed tiger on the surface of Mars. But so far they’re seen sticks and Big Foot and –
Pamela: There’s a woman – Dr. Matthew Francis wrote a great little article about this image that I don’t know how to describe it other than she looks like she’s about to go drown herself in the ocean. It’s kind of – it really looks like a haunted house woman traveling across the surface of Mars. And it’s just the shadow and the way the shadow falls across the land. It’s a creepy little woman. And he says, “Zoom in and you’ll stop seeing it.” No, I zoom and I keep seeing creepy little woman. But part of the reason I wanted to do this is because I know I see faces and stuff all the time.
And it’s not just faces. I sometimes see just pattern matching I’ll catch something out the corner of my eye. I once screamed very loudly because I reached down to pet a gray kitty and it turned out to be an opossum. Not the same creature. And our brains just fill in missing data. And this is the problem that we’re dealing with is our brains are essentially integrating over what isn’t there. Looking for details that aren’t actually resolved. This is how humans do pattern matching and this is one of the things that makes us so different from computers.
If you give the early – and I think they’ve gotten better – but if you give the early computer vision algorithms a smiley face, two dots and a parenthesis, they’re like, “I don’t know what this is. It’s two dots and a parenthesis. A face has a nose, cheek bones, structure, eye balls. Lips have features.” The human brain is capable of going, “No, no, no. I can fill in the details that aren’t there. I can assume emotions that parenthesis don’t have.” And so where we run into problems with pareidolia is the human brain filling in data that isn’t there.
And also the universe is essentially not a thousand monkeys banging on typewriters, but a few million volcanos spewing lava. And you spew enough lava, you’re gonna get an elephant on Mars.
Fraser: Right. Yeah. So I guess that sort of leads into the risks and the dangers. On the one hand obviously when a person sends me a picture and says, “I found a space civilization on Mars” and you can clearly see that all it is is that they took their picture, they blew it up a bunch of times in Photoshop, there’s all these artifacts that are causing this grid in their picture. I can just kind of ignore it. But where does this become more of a problem, especially for scientists in terms of their bias?
Pamela: Well, our bias as scientists has largely become, “We won’t believe any of it because we know the human brain is fallible.” Which means there are things that we found on Mars that look kind of like fossilized bacteria mats and no one wants to say we’ve found fossilized bacteria mats because that’s pattern matching and we haven’t gone up and touched it with a probe. And so we have reached the point of we know we’re fallible – and I know I’m mispronouncing that word.
Fraser: Fallible is also how you could say it.
Pamela: Right. So it’s hit the point where it’s gonna take extraordinary evidence to make even fairly ordinary claims simply because we’ve learned brains lie. And this is luckily where we’re out there using mass spectrometry. We’re out there digging into things. We’re out there touching things with robots. And we have the ability to eventually get the extraordinary data to make ordinary claims. Where it’s going to get interesting is we keep finding things and radio signal that turns out to be that’s a pulsar, that’s a quasar, that’s just something weird but normal and nonrepeating.
And we keep trying to find those radio signals that are indicative of civilization. We keep trying to find so many things. We desperately want to find life out there. And it’s going to be one of these things where when we do find it for the first time no one is going to believe it for a long time except for the poor person trying to go, “I actually found it. No, no, no. This is real.” Part of me – it’s like the tabby star. If it is a megastructure we’re gonna have to go visit it before anyone admits that.
Fraser: Right. Right. Even if they’re able to remove every single alternative answer for what tabby star is – although it looks like they’re kind of figured it out now – but even if they haven’t then the claim is so outrageous that this sort of falls into this Carl Sagan trope right? That extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yeah, even if you think that you have seen a dinosaur bone poking out of the surface of Mars just looking at the shape of it, knowing that human beings are fallible then you know that we would need to send some sort of follow up fossil grinding tool to get to the bottom of that question.
Pamela: And the thing to always remember is that some many abstract artists can stand there and randomly splatter paint onto a board and people will find in the splatters what they want to see. Sometimes it’s just their subconscious wanting to see something. Ink blots. We find shapes in ink blots. Our human mind was designed to find shapes. We’re extraordinarily good at it. And we’re also extraordinarily bad at perceiving reality. So these two things fight against us.
But embrace it. Embrace the fact that there is an elephant shape out of lava on Mars. Embrace the fact that there are smiley faces on world after world. And hearts and snowmen. Embrace it. Delight in it. And then science the – well, we all know what the book said.
Fraser: Showcase to the people that are watching. Again this is a very graphics heavy episode of Astronomy Cast. But I wrote a whole Astronomy Cast in galaxies because I can. Because there are – thanks to the things the folks at Galaxies do – they found galaxies that match every single letter of the alphabet. In fact multiple versions of those letters of the alphabet. And you can go – do a search for zoo alphabet and you can actually find a generator that will let you build any text that you want written out of entire galaxies. Just think. Hundreds of billions of stars and their only purpose is so that I can write words. Which I think is awesome.
But I guess so one of the things that you’re working with at CosmoQuest is having human beings look at photographs in ways that robots are really bad at. And you get that good and the bad. So have you had some really interesting pareidolia events where people have been like, “I think I see something?”
Pamela: So I got an email that when I read it I couldn’t help myself. I was sitting in the Admiral’s Club at LAX and I laughed in way that caused everyone around me to just look. Someone found – this is a kid friendly show – someone found a phallus in a crater chain and it was undeniable what it was that she found in this crater chain – and we will be doing a blog post about this sometime next week. I’m trying to get one of our team members to explain the science behind how this phallus was formed.
Fraser: Somebody did – was it Phil or was it you – somebody did a presentation – I think at DragonCon – with this sort of filthy –
Pamela: That was Phil.
Fraser: Yeah. It was not rated for the whole family but it was pretty hilarious the kinds of object that are out there in space as well.
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: Well on that note we’re gonna wrap this up. Thanks, Pamela.
Pamela: My pleasure.
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Duration: 25 minutes

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