Have you ever seen faces in places they don’t belong?
Maybe a wall outlet with a surprised expression? Or a smiling face in the holes of a cardboard box? Or the shadow of a person in chipped paint on a wall? Or, maybe most controversially…a face on the surface of Mars?
In 1976, Viking 1 was sent out into our solar system to snap photos of Mars and beam them back to NASA here on our little blue marble. While most of the images were of the barren Martian landscape, one photo showed something that caused a craze that has persisted for decades.
That is a face. A large face. Approximately two miles across. On Mars. When the photo hit the public, it caused a sensation. It's become a staple image for conspiracy theorists claiming extraterrestrial life and has been featured on magazine covers like the National Enquirer on a seemingly annual basis.
After all, it’s a face. Something like that had to be constructed, right? However, as NASA stated, it's just a trick of the shadows. If you don't believe it, here's a photo of the exact same location from 2001 taken with a better, higher-definition camera.
No face. Just a mesa on the surface of Mars.
But what does this have to do with seeing faces (that aren’t actually faces) in random places?
Here’s a more simple example: what does this look like to you?
Like many people around the world, you likely see a little sideways happy face constructed from punctuation.
But that begs the question...why do we see a face in the first place? It all comes down to our brains.
The human brain, as amazing as it is, has a few flaws.
Humans are incredibly social creatures. And, because of our social nature, social cues from other humans are incredibly important for verbal and non-verbal communication, understanding, and inclusion. So, the brain evolved to accommodate. Because seeing, recognizing, and understanding human faces and expressions became so important, our brains became wired to be ultra-sensitive to faces. Or things that look like faces. Or shadows on the side of a planet that vaguely resembles a face. Or a colon, hyphen, and a...you get the idea.
There's a small area in your brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA, for short). When you show someone a face, the FFA lights up like a Christmas tree. And it does so in about 130 milliseconds. When you show the brain something that looks like a face, the FFA is a little slower to turn on, clocking in at about 165 milliseconds. (To put that in perspective, 35 milliseconds is roughly the amount of time that a lightning strike is in contact with the ground.) While it’s a little slower to respond, the FFA still registers face-like things as faces. We’re hardwired to see faces, even when they’re not really there.
There have even been documented cases where people have damaged this part of their brain (called prosopagnosia or face blindness). The vision of people who have prosopagnosia is fine, but they can't recognize faces. It's like a face is just a jumble of body parts. Consequently, all the faces they see look the same, and they can't recognize anybody.
However, this goes further than faces. Take a look at this GIF. What do you see?
You probably see a person walking. Wrong. You see dots. Moving dots. That's it. But your brain is wired to see it as "human walking." We can't help but try and recognize patterns that look familiar.
This strange phenomenon is called pareidolia. It's a psychological quirk that, basically, makes us see something that matches a familiar pattern, even though that thing isn't really there. The face on Mars, seeing the image of Jesus in food, or buildings that look like faces are all examples of pareidolia. In fact, it's not just limited to images either. Sounds can induce cases of pareidolia, causing people to hear things that don't actually exist. A classic example is audio recordings of ghosts. A sound is recorded and slowed down (or sped up), and a strange sound is perceived as a word or phrase that seems familiar. (This also is helped along a little by the power of suggestion, but that's for another time too.)
So, now that we know all this, is it likely that there’s actually a face on Mars? Probably not. And to some of you, that may seem a little boring. But to me, images like these reveal the inner mechanisms of how our brain works and that is far more fascinating.
So the next time you see a ghostly face staring back at you from your burnt toast, just remember: it's all in your head. And that's awesome.