Our minds are programmed to recognize faces and they do it instantly, That’s why we see shapes in the clouds and try to find faces on the rocks. In fact, that we even see them where they aren’t. A random arrangement of rocks can easily become a mouth, nose and eyes in our mind, as can almost anything from an electrical outlet to a locomotive.
The photo above, for example, is just a rock jutting from the Zittau Mountains in eastern Germany. It’s almost impossible for us to not see a human profile, though, thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. While pareidolia can make us imagine almost any familiar object in unrelated stimuli — like clouds that resemble rabbits
or a hand in a supernova
— its specialty is to find a face.
“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains,” astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan wrote in his 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World
.” “Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.”
Witch Head Nebula, Orion
Photo: NASA/STScI Digitized Sky Survey/Noel Carboni
Located near the blue star Rigel in the constellation Orion, this reflection nebula is named for its eerie resemblance to a “fairytale crone
,” as NASA puts it. Its blue color comes not just from Rigel, but also from the fact its dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red. Or maybe it’s just witchcraft.
Badlands Guardian, Canada
The Badlands Guardian, which resembles a human head wearing a Native American headdress, was discovered
via Google Earth in 2006. Created by erosion and weathering of the area’s soft, clay-rich soil, it also seems to be wearing earphones thanks to a road that leads to a natural gas well.
Overseer of Ebihans, France
This craggy countenance — complete with unmistakable eyes, nose, lips, chin and even green hair — stares pensively from a hillside in the Ebihens archipelago of northwestern France.
Man on Mars
First photographed by NASA’s Viking 1 probe in 1976, this rock on Mars became a sensation among people who saw it as a carving — and thus evidence of intelligent life on another planet. Located in a Martian region known as Cydonia, it fueled conspiracy theories and haunted tabloid covers until higher-quality images in 1998 and 2001 proved it was merely a mesa
that doesn’t look much like a face.
Queen’s Head, Taiwan
Yeliu, a mile-long cape in Taiwan, is known for its hoodoos
. The most famous is Queen’s Head
, formed by 4,000 years of differential erosion and a lucky break 50 years ago. “After it fractured along the grain of the rock in 1962,” explains Taiwan’s tourism website, “it has resembled the profile of England’s Queen Elizabeth when viewed from a certain angle, which is how it has come to be called the Queen’s Head.”
Happy-face spider, Hawaii
The Hawaiian happy-face spider
exists only on four islands in Hawaii, lurking under leaves in high-altitude forests. Different populations have an array of patterns and color morphs, many of which look like a smiling cartoon face. It’s unclear what adaptive benefit this serves, if any, but it may help protect the spiders from birds. It doesn’t necessarily save them from people, though, since Cornell University warns
ongoing deforestation “will absolutely result in the extinction of this species.”
Pedra da Gavea, Brazil
Pedra da Gavea, a 2,700-foot mountain in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest, looks like a bearded human face wearing a priest’s hat. Along with odd markings
that resemble inscriptions, this has led to speculation
the peak was carved by ancient people. Scientists now generally agree, however, the “inscriptions” were caused by erosion and the face is just a quirk of pareidolia.
Similar to hoodoos like the Queen’s Head, sea stacks develop as ocean waves erode coastal cliffs unevenly, leaving isolated columns of rock. The Swedish island of Gotland is famous for its seastacks, especially one on the Hoburgen peninsula named Hoburgsgubben
, or “Old Man of Hoburgen.”
Horsehead Nebula, Orion
It may not be a human face, but given our species’ historical reliance on horses, it’s little surprise how readily we see that animal’s likeness in the Horsehead Nebula
. While the Witch Head Nebula is located near Rigel, one of Orion’s feet, this celestial steed grazes near the star Alnitak in Orion’s Belt.