Eerie! Watch the NASA animation of the space probe Dawn approaching the dwarf planet Ceres.
When I saw this it reminded me of a moment hiking down a red rock canyon in Utah. I looked up and suddenly saw this:
When I saw the pictograph, and when I saw the Ceres image, I had the same sensation. Amazement, along with shivers down the back of my neck. I am sure that in the ancient Puebloan case, this effect was intentional. As for Ceres, who knows!
We are not the only species that responds strongly to eye-like structures. It even happens in animals that have more than one set:
Coastal Peacock spider, Western Australia. See more photos of this amazing arachnid here, or click the image above to see it in action.
Take home message: Selection has shaped the human brain to see patterns of interest to humans (Pictograph), and patterns that evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with mammalian sensory perception (Peacock Spider). As for the Ceres white spots, I was extremely interested to find out what they are and why they formed. This interest that I share with many others may be an example of sensory hijacking. We have an evolved preference for eye-like objects because recognizing eyes has had strong fitness consequences during human and pre-human evolution. Excitement about the Ceres bright spots – an example of an evolved and easily fooled terrestrial sensory apparatus?
As it turns out, the eye spots on Ceres were later found to be salt deposits, formed by up-welling of salty water in the craters of relatively recent meteor strikes, as described in this post by EarthSky.
EarthSky.org – Ceres’ bright spots come from salty water below. Here is a closer and higher resolution image of the same phenomenon:
It might be a little disappointing to have our fantasies of alien life replaced by something as prosaic as salt water. But that is science for you.
Emergency Physician, Educator, Researcher, interested in the microbiome, evolution, and medicine
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