Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ceiling Patterns

Have you ever noticed that when you stare a the ceiling for a while that patterns start to emerge?  Not that I do this very often mind you, but every once in a while, I take a break and lay on the bed and just let my mind wonder.  And just when my mind hits that relaxed idle state, all of a sudden the ceiling pattern looks exactly like my great Aunt Catherine.

It's kind of like laying in a hammock in the back yard and  looking at Clouds.  Sooner or later those clouds will start looking like elephants or trains or even Abraham Lincoln.  The psychological term for this is Pareidolia which is the phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.

 One famous case of this is the so called face of man on Mars image.


In 1976, NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft was circling the planet, snapping photos of possible landing sites for its sister ship Viking 2, when it spotted the shadowy likeness of a human face. An enormous head nearly two miles from end to end seemed to be staring back at the cameras from a region of the Red Planet called Cydonia. For decades, scientists and conspiracy theorists debated whether or not the face of man on Mars was definitive proof that intelligent life had once lived on the red planet.

25 years later, the mystery was finally solved.  The Mars Global Surveyor took a photograph of the exact same region.  Instead of a face, the image showed an eroded hilltop.

So there you have it.  Whether we are looking at pattern on the ceiling or clouds or faces on Mars, the human mind is wired to turn those patterns into something it can comprehend.  Carl Sagan hypothesized that as a survival technique, human beings are "hard-wired" from birth to identify the human face. This allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility but can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. The evolutionary advantages of being able to discern friend from foe with split-second accuracy are numerous; prehistoric (and even modern) men and women who accidentally identify an enemy as a friend could face deadly consequences for this mistake. This is only one among many evolutionary pressures responsible for the development of the facial recognition capability of modern humans.

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