Pareidolia: Why you see faces on Mars

Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.
8 min readApr 26

As a little kid, I remember a TV show hosted by Lenard Nimoy called “In search of”. I was fascinated by all the hints at evidence for things beyond our normal experience; hints that seemed even more true because of their proximity to clearly academic facts.

I don’t know if it was during an episode of this show, or in something I read because of this show, but it was at this young age that I first encountered an image taken by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter of an unusual mountain that is often referred to as just “The Face on Mars.” And I’ve been watching what we learn about that mountain ever since.

Viking 1 image of the “Man on Mars”

It was recognized at the time that this face is just a trick of light and shadow that causes our human mind to see a face when all that is actually there is a random interplay of light and shadow on a lumpy hillock. I didn’t know it at the time, but my young mind was experiencing an effect called pareidolia.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pareidolia is “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

I’ve often heard it explained that it is better to see the face that isn’t there than to miss the face that is, or it’s better to see the non-existent tiger in the grass then miss the man eating tiger. Basically, if our brain is going to fail, it is going to fail with false positives.

And this can be fun. Finding patterns in clouds is part of being human. As an astronomer, I’ve waited with colleagues to go into a seminar and whiled away our time by finding shapes in a poster of the Pillars of Creation. Experiencing pareidolia is fun.

It only becomes a problem when people take the false reality their brain has come up with and assign it real value.

Let’s go back to considering that face on Mars.

When it was first found, there were folks out there saying, incorrectly, that it was a sign of some great civilization building the massive figures like we have on earth with the Nazca lines and Sphinx in Egypt.

I will never know if the folks saying this most loudly actually believe what they say, or if they’re just trying to make a buck with their own version of click bait.

Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.

Astronomer, technologist, & creative focused on using new media to engage people in learning and doing science. Opinions & typos my own.