A photo taken on Mars and released by NASA this weekend has social media users in a frenzy, as they ask the question that is on everyone’s mind: Is that thing on Mars really a giant crab monster?
The image reveals a rock formation that looks like a cave. At the mouth sits something that looks like some type of alien crustacean.
Social media hypotheses range from the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Jimmy Hoffa and even “the face sucker from Alien,” as one Facebook user wrote, but as far as anyone knows, it is likely nothing more than another rock.
However, if it looks like a beast from science fiction to you, that’s because your brain is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing by distinguishing shapes out of random objects, in a phenomenon called pareidolia, according to the Huffington Post.
"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," Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research, wrote in an email to the Huffington Post.
Pareidolia often causes false alarms and overreactions, but it occasionally saves lives, reports Time. Here’s how it works: We see a face shape in a background, so the brain determines based on context if it is a face or a fluke. However, our brains always err cautiously, which occasionally helps us avoid danger, but usually just causes overactive imaginations.
"Recognizing a crab in a landscape filled with wind-weathered rocks is no more surprising -- nor more significant -- than seeing a winking face in a semi-colon followed by a parenthesis. ;) " Shostak added.
Shostak says he sees images that spark the imagination, like the one recently released, about once a week.
"Those that send them to me are generally quite excited, as they claim that these frequently resemble SOMETHING you wouldn't expect to find on the rusty, dusty surface of the Red Planet," Shostak wrote. "It's usually some sort of animal, but occasionally even weirder objects such as automobile parts. Maybe they think there are cars on Mars."