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Tricky Brain!

Ever see one of those news stories about how someone saw an angel or virgin mary in a piece of toast or some such? It turns out there's a name for this sort of phenomenon: pareidolia. Don't ask me how to pronounce it. I just learned about it from one of my former Ay20 students who has continued to write on her blog well after the class wrapped up:

http://ay20-joanna.blogspot.com/2012/07/how-our-brains-trick-us-pareidolia.html

A snippet:

Recognizing facial expression patterns is also very important.  If you want to get along with the people in your group, you have to know if they’re upset with you or happy or worried.  So our brains love to see faces.  They are looking for any piece of information that will tell them what is going on, if there is any danger, if anybody looks like they are angry.  That’s why when faced with pure random noise, our brains try so hard to find a clue about what is going on, and they start to see things that aren’t really there.  Bam!  Pareidolia. 
What this leads to in the wider scheme of things is cultural beliefs in things like Bigfoot, aliens, and ghosts.  One famous example of pareidolia is the “Face on Mars.” 
(Image from Wikipedia)
In 1976, the spacecraft Viking I took an image of a Martian rock outcropping that resembles a face.  Some people interpret this as evidence for intelligent life on Mars.  Others might recognize that seeing such a pattern in Martian rocks is just a result of pareidolia and our brains’ tendency to see faces when none are there.
When the Face on Mars was imaged again in 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor, it's facial features are no longer visible.


It's very exciting to see my students continue writing about science after taking my Intro Astro course. I think I'm more excited about her writing than I would be if she remembered all of the equations of stellar structure.

I get to do it all again starting in October!

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