Marcia and the Amazing Human Brain
One of the Curiosity Rover’s most popular pictures is the so-called Mars Rat. I’ve heard she even has her own Twitter account. The long-distance ISP charges must be horrendous.
For the sake of convenience, and because the word ‘rat’ has negative connotations and I don’t want to be accused of speciesism, I’m going to refer to her as ‘Marcia’. I have no idea if that’s her real name, and I’m not about to ask her.
Marcia, of course, it isn’t a real rat. Although scientists now think that microbial life might have been able to survive on Mars billions of years ago, a rat is impossible—unless, of course, you believe in UFOs and conspiracies at NASA more than I do. In which case you’re on the wrong site; this is about science fiction, not fantasy.
Looking at Marcia scientifically, she is a great example of a psychological phenomenon called pereidolia, pronounced pair eye DOLE ee a. That’s a fancy name for seeing pictures in clouds, sex acts in ice cubes, Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, or Hitler in a teapot. Or Elvis, anywhere.
Rorschach tests are another great example. Ditto for hidden messages found in popular music.
As cute little Marcia teaches us, the human brain is great at finding obscure patterns and similarities in a chaotic scene.
What’s that you’re saying? Marcia isn’t obscure? She’s obvious?
Ahem. Try looking at a slightly bigger version of the picture in which a Japanese gentleman first found her:
Not so obvious, is she? She’s even less obvious in the original composite picture, where she’s numbered ‘1’.
For fun, I spent a couple minutes scanning the rest of the picture and found:
- A pair of fish jeads (2)
- A groundhog (3)
- A killer whale jumping out of the water … er, sand (4)
- A dolphin (5)
You can find a full-size version of the original at NASA’s site. If you find anything else hidden in the picture, let us know in the comments section.
Can Marcia Teach Us about Fiction?
Darned right she can! This is, after all, not an ordinary rat, but an out-of-this-world Mars Rat.
Fiction is, in a sense, another form of pereidolia.
Life is messy, random, chaotic. Just like the original picture from NASA. So what do our human brains do? We search for patterns, even if no patterns exist. We seek to understand people and events. We do that by telling stories that focus in on teensy little slivers of the overwhelming canvas of life, ignoring all the irrelevant stuff in order to bring out the events that have meaning.
What kind of meaning?
Usually moral. Most (though not all) fiction reaffirms the moral principles that we yearn for. Bad guys get punished. Love can transform us. Good is better than evil. Selflessness trumps selfishness.
A great example is Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. This award-winning book has pereidolia as its theme (although Wilder never uses the word).
Here’s a quick summary:
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence, Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey. By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy, and seeks to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy.
Brother Juniper’s search for divine intervention is just another way of saying he seeks the tiny details of the victim’s lives to find the meaning in their deaths. It’s nifty and extremely well done.
So Marcia teaches us that fiction is a filter that ignores the irrelevant to find meaning.
Another lesson she highlights is the importance of point of view. It’s safe to say that from a slightly different angle, Marcia would probably look like just another rock. (Admittedly, I can’t test this hypothesis.)
The lesson here is that authors need to choose the right angle to bring out the moral story. For example, a police story about catching a crook would look quite different from the crook’s point of view, and it would have a very different moral lesson.
None of this is new, of course. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as an artistic device in one of his extensive notebooks:
“If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.”
My high school English teacher said that you may never know a real person as deeply you know a well drawn fictional character. To the extent that she’s right, it’s because authors ‘make sense’ of the irrational inconsistencies that plague even the most logical person. They select only the relevant details out of chaos, and they chose the pertinent point of view.
In short, they search for Marcia on Mars.