Jan 18 2008

Homer Pareidolius

On January 14th the Messenger spacecraft made its closest approach to the planet Mercury. As a reward for our technological prowess and and inclination for discovery we are receiving beautiful images of this small and cratered world. We always expect to be surprised when we turn our instruments in a new direction – in fact we would be disappointed if we were not confronted with something new and unforseen. Even still, I don’t think the NASA astronomers were quite expecting to see the mug of Homer Simpson staring back at them from the surface of Mercury. (see image below the fold)

Then again, maybe they did. Well, at least by now they should expect that the swirls, craters, ridges, and other geological structures they view on the surface of alien worlds may sometimes, quite by random chance, look like something familiar. This is now a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia – seeing a face or a familiar shape in random patterns. Everyone is familiar with seeing a face or animal shape in the clouds or on the bark of a tree or in an oil stain. That is pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a consequence of the fact that our brains largely work through pattern recognition – making connections among various ideas, memories, or images. We are also very visual creatures and so are particularly good at visual pattern recognition – still better than the best supercomputers (at least for now). The most familiar visual pattern for humans is the human face. Even as infants we prefer to look at human faces over other stimuli. We have a large portion of our visual cortex dedicated to seeing and remembering faces. This is likely due to evolutionary pressures to be able to instantly recognize friend from foe, but also to be able to read subtle facial expressions.

For this reason we tend to see faces everywhere – our brains are constantly trying to fit random patterns to known patterns, and it knows and prefers facial patterns best of all.

Perhaps the most famous example of astronomical pareidolia is the face on Mars – hailed by the deluded to be evidence of intelligent habitation of Mars in the past, but revealed by high-resolution images to be just a natural mesa formation. But there are plenty of other examples as well. My favorite is the spitting image of Kermit the frog.

So perhaps NASA astronomers should not have been shocked when they saw Homer Simpson on Mercury. Even though I have long since come to grips with the powerful nature of pareidolia, it can still seem uncanny to me how exact an image can appear. The shape of the head, the perfectly matched and positioned eyes, even the trademark five- o-clock shadow – uncanny.

Of course, when we think of all the craters and opportunities for chance configurations, just on Mercury alone, and all the thousands of faces stored in our visual memory, the odds don’t seem that long after all. Also, this is just one of many possible Homer configurations. Here he is looking down and to his right. He could have been looking in a different direction, or had a different expression on his face, or part of his body could have been included. Still, the image is compelling – but that is because our brains will seize upon any suggestion of a facial structure and enhance it to make it seem like more of a fit. It will also fill in missing information – for example, Homer’s right cheek is missing, but that does not detract from the overall effect of the image very much.

The Homer on Mercury is now destined to become a classic example of pareidolia – because it is so pop-culture. Even Richard Hoagland cannot claim that this is the product of an ancient alien civilization (although perhaps I am giving him too much credit – actually he may try to conclude it is a NASA hoax designed to discredit him and the face on Mars – you heard it here first, DOH!). And who doesn’t love Homer.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Homer Pareidolius”

  1. daedalus2uon 18 Jan 2008 at 11:51 am

    I can’t see Homer at all, but I have a touch of prosopagnosia.

  2. jonny_ehon 18 Jan 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I thought I saw the homer you spoke of, but he is looking down and to the left. You claim he’s looking down and to the right, are there two homers?

    This is another great example of pareidolia, in that, the pattern wouldn’t even be noticeable if someone hadn’t pointed it out (similar to the satanic messages in Stairway to Heaven).

  3. Steven Novellaon 18 Jan 2008 at 12:45 pm

    To clarify, he is looking down and to his right. So you are probably looking at the correct Homer.

    And you are right – often with pareidolia the image has to be pointed out to you, but once it is you can’t make the image go away. There it is.

  4. fontinalison 18 Jan 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I was busy giving myself props for getting Homer right off the bat, and then I read that what I thought was an outstretched rodent was actually Kermit the frog. Even with the directions, it still took me a second.

    From what I can find, pareidolia and the related term, apophenia (essentially a Type I error in examining meaningless data), were both coined only recently, despite that fact that they describe phenomena that must alway have been part of the human experience.

    Sagan, in Demon Haunted World, seems to be one of the first to suggest their innateness. But you don’t seem to hear much about ongoing research. Does anyone know of specific work on pattern searching and recognition? Dr. N?

  5. Skeptykon 18 Jan 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Whoa. Double the fun. I see Homer looking at Strindberg’s floaty friend, Helium.

  6. Larry Coonon 18 Jan 2008 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t see Homer either, but that angry balloon head on the lower left gives me the willies…

  7. daedalus2uon 18 Jan 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I still can’t see it, but this talk of seeing Homer Simpson from space reminded me of this picture.


  8. ADR150on 18 Jan 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I don’t see any resemblance of Homer in either picture. The first just seems completely random and the second looks like a rodent with the head at the top and its lower half turning to spaghetti.

  9. Potter1000on 18 Jan 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I don’t see it. I hate you, Dr. Novella. I hate you for making me look and not circling Homer.

    On a completely unrelated note, I hope you or someone on the science-based medicine blog will talk about the disease in the news about fibers growing from the skin:


    I’ve seen stories pop up about this once in a while for a couple years, but now it’s all over the place. Some expert commentary would be appreciated.

  10. Steven Novellaon 18 Jan 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Look at the two craters in the middle right of the picture that are almost exactly the same size. Those are the eyes.

    I am planning an entry on Morgellons disease, either here or over at SBM. It is a complex topic and I am in the research phase.

  11. uknesvuinngon 18 Jan 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Instead of Homer, I see Dr. Zoidberg, probably because I’ve been watching a great deal of Futurama recently. Also, the second image is clearly a mer-otter.

  12. DLCon 18 Jan 2008 at 8:58 pm

    After looking a while and following your hints, I can find a shape that kinda-sorta reminds me of the Ubiquitous Homer Simpson.
    But I can’t say it immediately leaped out at me.

  13. CKavaon 19 Jan 2008 at 10:50 am

    I think I’ve spotted another Homer face (though it may be the original one as I can’t seem to spot that one). Focus on the bottom right corner of the screen and imagine Homer looking directly at you… then if you’re brain looks like mine you will see two large circular eyes, a small circular nose and the top half of trademark stubble. Also seems to work if you then flip the image upside down. Anyone see what Im talking about?

  14. petrucioon 19 Jan 2008 at 1:01 pm


    Any one of those two?

    The second one looks more like it to me, but I still think ist’s a little too far off.

  15. krissncleoon 19 Jan 2008 at 2:52 pm

    An image of the virgin mary on a piece of toast was sold on ebay for 28,000 dollars. The holy piece of bread also brought the owner luck, as she says, because she had won (I think) 7,000 dollars. There was also a bald Brittney Spears on ebay, but it was taken off of auction. Images have appeared on rain soked windows, mountains and clouds.


  16. nowooon 19 Jan 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Here’s one of my pareidolia favorites from right here on earth:


    I think one was also mentioned on the SGU podcast.

  17. JDCAceon 08 Feb 2008 at 1:05 am

    In response to jonny_eh:
    The Homer I see, and I’m 99% positive it’s the one mentioned in the story, is facing down-left. Sorry, Dr. Novella!

  18. […] Links :: http://www.ibnlive.com/news/nasa-images-spark-life-on-mars-speculations/57223-11.html and http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php?p=173 […]

  19. JoyMorrison 19 Feb 2009 at 12:12 pm

    I think it looks more like Dr. Zoidberg.

  20. bendanielon 13 Sep 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I have to agree with the other commentors, when it finally clicked for me it was Dr. Z!

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