The internet has been abuzz about an image taken by the Mars Curiosity rover on the surface of the Red Planet. The so-called "woman" on Mars has worked its way around alien conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts, who pointed out that the image appeared like a woman who was partly cloaked.
Center for SETI Research director Seth Shostak, an astronomer, however, said that if there is indeed life on this extraterrestrial world, the image, which was posted on NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, does not provide evidence of it.
He said that the image of the woman on planet Mars is all in the mind of the beholder, a phenomenon known as pareidolia.
Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon that makes people see or hear familiar things when they encounter unfamiliar patterns. The human brain is hard-wired to search for meanings, patterns and faces in images. Shostak said that this helped our ancestors catch prey or avoid predators albeit it is a poor strategy when it comes to hunting extraterrestrial life.
Carl Sagan said that this phenomenon is probably carved into the human genes and helped us with our survival.
In his book "The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark," the cosmologist said that the ability to recognize faces that were not really there has helped humans distinguish danger from safety as those who though they spotted a predator in the bushes and fled had higher odds of surviving than those who ignored signs of potential danger.
"The pareidolia phenomenon is actually a deeply rooted one, something that helps infants focus on faces early and also allowed humans in the wild to spot danger easily-picking a potentially menacing human or animal peering out from a backdrop of leaves or scrub," explained Time's science writer Jeffrey Kluger. "Yes, more often than not it's a false alarm, but better to overreact fifty times than under-react even once."
Other examples of pareidolia is seeing faces on the moon, animal shapes in clouds and even the silhouette of Virgin Mary etched in a burnt toast.
"I know that this may disappoint those who are convinced otherwise, but just because it looks like a duck is hardly proof of ducky-ness -- or in this case, evidence that a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty is welcoming NASA hardware to Mars," Shostak said.