Most of us know there aren't faces on Mars or messiahs in our toast. Still, we can't help but see them.
The human brain is programmed to recognize other human faces — so much so, 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."
And once we reach adulthood, we still amuse ourselves with how this instinct forces us to see faces in all kinds of faceless places. A popular subreddit is dedicated to pareidolia, featuring funny photos of personified objects like kitchen mixers, chainsaws, gas pumps and houses.
It's one thing to see ourselves in man-made things, but pareidolia can be especially eerie in nature. While a person might have wanted car headlights to look like a smiling face, what about the visages staring at us from eroded rocks and spider backs? The only explanation lies within us, prompting a more mindful look not just at the natural forces behind such coincidences, but at the mind itself.
On that note, here are 14 uncanny examples of pareidolia from the natural world:
Witch Head Nebula, Orion
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
A satellite view of the Badlands Guardian in southeastern Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Google Earth)
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.
Dracula orchid, Colombia
The genus Dracula includes more than 100 species of orchids, all native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America. The genus name literally means "little dragon," although its spooky cloud-forest habitats "may also evoke images of Count Dracula," according to the biodiversity charity Wildscreen Arkive. The flowers may not look like vampires exactly, but many species — including the Dracula radiosa pictured above — do seem to have eyes, lips and other humanoid facial features.
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. It somehow ended up looking like Queen Elizabeth I from some angles. Authorities are worried the neck is at risk for collapse.
Happy-face spider, Hawaii
This smiley spider's Hawaiian name is nananana makakiʻi, or 'face-patterned spider.' (Photos: National Science Foundation)
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
Is this sleeping giant ready to rise? (Photo: Leonardo Shinagawa/Flickr)
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.
Spiny orb-weaver spider, North America
The spiny orb-weaver spider is common across the Southern U.S. from California to the Carolinas, as well as parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Not only does its abdomen sometimes resemble a human skull, but its habit of weaving webs in low-hanging branches often brings the tiny spider unwanted contact with actual human heads. This may be scary, but its bite is generally harmless.
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.
Ortley Pinnacles, Washington
What appears to be two Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters in conversation is actually a pair of lava columns in Devil's Hole, Washington. These basalt pinnacles were once horizontal lava flows, tilted over time by geological forces. They're only about a dozen feet (3.6 meters) tall; see this photo for scale.
While the man in the moon owes his familiar face to ancient lunar maria, this solar smile is a more ephemeral phenomenon. Active regions of the sun's surface appear brighter in this image, taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, because those areas were emitting more light and energy at the time. The glowing face represents complex and powerful magnetic fields in the sun's atmosphere, or corona, captured here by blending two sets of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.