Hey, remember when everyone was talking about the Loch Ness Monster Apple Maps satellite photo a couple weeks ago? Wonder why the beastly image hasn’t been reproduced before or since, or why the zoologic community isn’t descending upon the lake with renewed vigor thanks to this new evidence? You can probably guess why.

A blurry something-or-other. What do you see?

Putting the Pieces Together

Or maybe not. It’s kind of a natural tendency to try to piece together – both consciously and unconsciously – a coherent explanation for what we’re seeing. Our perception isn’t as simple as projecting the data derived from our eyes on a brain screen. We’re not truly envisioning the world how it actually is, but how our brain constructs the information it’s given, “filling in” gaps created by blind spots and other obstructions to fit previously catalogued instances of what something “should” look like.

Believe it or not, this is a static image. Notice that when staring at a particular white dot, many others seem black. Now look at a different one and see what happens. Your brain wants to make the dots black to fit the color contrast.

We’re so good at recognizing patterns where they don’t necessarily exist, there’s even a word for it: pareidolia. Think of the face on Mars or Jesus on a piece of toast. Faces are especially easy to recognize (rightly or wrongly), for good reason. Emotions and intent can be discerned from a human face, and you should really be able to tell in an instant whether the guy running up to you is a familiar friend or an unknown, potential enemy.

Although it’s not always easy to discriminate. Jesus Christ or Charlie Manson?

But other false positive patterns pop out at us, too. Otherwise we wouldn’t have Rorschach tests or even constellations. Knowing this, doesn’t it seem weird that we’re so willing to jump to fantastic conclusions when confronted with unusual stimuli? The face on Mars was just the beginning. The visage in the original 1976 Viking image was pretty clearly a result of luckily placed shadows, and a 2001 photo from the Mars Global Surveyor dispelled all doubt.

Photo credit: NASA

With the currently active Spirit and Opportunity rovers roaming the Red Planet, there are plenty of chances for mystery mongers to misinterpret things in the mountains of data. Fortunately no one took the “Mars Bigfoot” too seriously, but the “Mars doughnut” and the light over the horizon had their fair share of kooky comments. Why the rush to extraordinary judgment? All of these things succumbed to more mundane explanations rather quickly. That should probably tell us to pump the brakes before we assume the wildest possibility imaginable.

If you can recognize this isn’t a real person, you should understand that the same brain trick happens a lot.

Cameras Do Lie

The light on Mars may in fact be due to the detection of cosmic rays, pointing out a peculiarity of collecting data in an alien setting. It’s often too easy to skip those idiosyncrasies and jump straight to interpreting what we see, forgetting, like our eyes, cameras don’t always give a flawless record of reality. For all their clarity, modern digital cameras have plenty of their own “blind spots.”

The relatively new photographic phenomenon of “spirit orbs” is actually caused by retroflection, when a larger than usual portion of the flash is reflected directly into the lens. While some paranormalists prefer to think they’re ghosts (not sure what leads them to that conclusion), orbs are almost always the result of dust particles suspended in the air. Why don’t we see them more often, then? We do! You can even make some yourself! I did! Accidentally!

Taken on one of my job sites. Either a technological artifact or those buried oil drums were haunted.

“Rods” are another simple misfire that had the fantasy-prone in a tizzy for a while. The “creatures” are typically recorded by video cameras in outdoor locations and look like elongate cylinders with undulating wings. They zip through frames at great speed and no one ever seems to notice them until playback.

A swarm of so-called rods.

The now-canceled History Channel program Monsterquest devoted a whole episode to rods and, apparently unintentionally, proved through experiment what they really are. By shaking a bush at night and recording the fleeing insects with both normal and high speed cameras, the crew was able to capture flitting rods that were revealed in the high speed to just be moths. It turns out that a regular digital camera “occasionally guesses wrong and creates something that isn’t there,” according to Mike Bergen of Panasonic. Just like our brains.

The Loch Ness image is another thing that looks weird at first but becomes pretty goddamn normal if you just take a sec and figure out what’s really happening. The above picture does look like a big fish. Kind of looks like the wake of a boat, too. I see a truck in the middle, by my vision kind of sucks.

The marine ecology blog Southern Fried Science explains that the image looks like a Frankenstein hodgepodge of things because that’s exactly what it is. Satellite images aren’t snapped instantly like from a cell phone, but are instead “stitched together” from shots taken throughout the device’s orbital path. When creating such panoramas, it’s inevitable that sometimes things just won’t look right or some details – like the truck/boat center – could be washed out. While far from obvious, it’s important to consider the limitations of the recording device before speculating on the true nature of an image.

Other images from different angles make the identification pretty easy.

The Never-Ending Story

But some people so want to believe that they’ll skip a step on the way to their desired outcome. They might even persist after rock-solid evidence is presented. Consider this reenactment of actual events (so it must be true!) from the end of the Monsterquest episode:

Narrator: So are all rods bugs? [pause]

Dog: Well, I think that’s what you just showed us. I don’t see any reason to invent a new branch of physics or enlist beings from the fourth dimension to explain something you just reproduced exactly in some guy’s garden.

Narrator: Not necessarily.

Dog: Oh, fuck me.