Faces on the brain

The human brain is an amazing machine. It takes in vast amounts of data – sight, sound, smell, and more – crunches through it, and within a fraction of a second makes enough sense of it that we don’t (usually) wind up walking off a cliff or tasting colors.

But it evolved haphazardly over millions of years, constructed like a piece of complex software some half-trained programmer has been wedging subroutines in by force. That means the wiring doesn’t always work as advertised, and our brains can be fooled.

This can result in optical illusions, and one my favorite kind falls under the category of pareidolia: seeing faces or other familiar objects in random (or semirandom) patterns.

We’ve all experienced it: who hasn’t looked at clouds and seen a face, a bird, or even (seriously) a fist? It’s easy and fun to do, and a nice way to pass a lovely afternoon.

Of course, it’s also easy to get carried away. Seeing a member of The Fantastic Four in a supernova remnant is one thing, but when a believer sees a religious icon, it can be hard to dissuade them from the idea it’s divine intervention – even when to someone else (me!) it looks like the singer from Supertramp. Heck, I was once haunted by Lenin in my own bathroom!

Our brains are hardwired to see faces; it’s how we recognize someone as being family, a friend, or a stranger. It’s such a strong survival instinct that it can be hard to not see faces. Especially when you’re searching for craters!

My favorite example of these is the Martian crater Galle – the smiley face on Mars! It even looks like it’s winking. And it looks a lot more like a face than the original “Face” on Mars.

In fact, once you start seeing faces, it’s hard to stop! And not just human faces, either. I’ve seen Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants on Mars, the Star Trek, Borg Queen on Mercury, and of course proof that NASA is Mickey Mouse organization.

So if you use Moon Mappers to investigate the lunar surface, marking craters and boulders and other natural formations, be aware of just how easy for your brain to be fooled. You have to fight the urge to think it’s real… and I know how hard that fight can be. But c’mon. It’s not like battling a dragon or anything.

[If you do happen to see a crater that bears an uncanny resemblance to something else, make sure you tag it and discuss it in the Moon Mappers forum!]


Phil Plait is an astronomer and author who writes the Bad Astronomy Blog. He thinks pareidolia rocks.

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