opporunity rover

Mars Opportunity Rover Creature Image – Why We See What Isn’t Really There

In addition to several other objects that appear to look like animals, alien bunkers, or even Martians themselves, the latest picture generating interest from the Mars Opportunity Rover looks something like a four-legged animal standing on the Martian wastes.

Four-Legged Creature
A four-legged creature on Mars, or…?

At first glance, the “creature” captured on film by NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover looks like it could be the outline of something akin to a dog, a bison or even a lion. One must admit, the first time looking at the image, it may bring to mind the description that Edgar Rice Burroughs gave of the fictional calot in his books of Barsoom – though the calot – like John Carter’s pet, Woola – had ten legs, and this “creature” only appears to have four.

But does this image actually show what we think we see at first glance? A four-legged animal of some sort on Martian soil? Unfortunately, probably not. If you look closely between what would be considered the rear legs of the creature, you can make out that you’re not looking at “light” patches between the animal’s legs, but rather round rocks that are in the foreground. The black area above the rocks is most likely a shadow of some sort.

So why don’t we see that when we first look at the picture from NASA’s Opportunity Rover? Why, when we look at the stark Martian landscape and see a mysterious shape, do some minds immediately jump to the conclusion that there’s a strange beast on another world? No matter how illogical?

Maybe it has something to do with a phenomenon called apophenia, or what is often more commonly referred to as Matrixing.

The technical definition for apophenia is “the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” Matrixing is not something that humans do consciously, but we do do it. The human brain is attempting to find logic in what may not always be logical. To that end, it constructs connections between what we see, hear and even smell and what it perceives to be a logical subset of information entering our brains.

The ambience or mood of a situation can have a lot to do with what our brains perceive. If you’re walking on an autumn night in the woods under the moonlight, seeing a particular expanse of dead branches, your mind might try to make those branches into the face of a monster or other menacing figure. Or, if you see a strange shadow on a tree, your mind might try to change it into the shape of a witch or some other scary person. On the flip-side, if you’re particularly religious and in that frame of mind, you might stare at a waterfall and think you see a likeness of the Christ figure, or you might look into a random mosaic of stained glass and see the visage of the Virgin Mary. Our minds take in what they actually perceive and combine it with our imaginations to form an impression of what we “think” we see.

In psychology, the idea of the Rorschach, or ink-blot test, has a lot to do with apophenia or Matrixing. By showing a subject something that is completely random, like an ink-blot, insight can be gained by what the subject’s mind tells them they’re seeing in the meaningless image.

Then again, maybe what’s on the photograph taken by NASA’s Opportunity Rover isn’t an example of apophenia or Matrixing at all. Maybe it really is a four-legged Martian animal. How cool would that be?

Image via Despierta al Futuro