Why Do We See Faces In The Moon?
April 22, 2014

Why Do We See Faces In The Moon?

Of all the things humans have been able to observe on a regular basis, the moon provides perhaps the greatest enthrallment and mystery. It is the most noticeable thing in space, except for the sun of course, but because the sun is so essential to us and in many ways we are surrounded by it, it doesn’t feel so removed. The moon, though, being so constant yet far away, and coming out at night, has constantly provoked us to stare at it, and to try to find meaning in it.

Depending where you come from in the world, you will have had different supposed images on the moon’s surface pointed out to you as a child. In the Far East, a rabbit is seen making some kind of food or drink for us with a pestle and mortar. In Japan he is making rice cakes, while in Korea and China he is making some sort of immortality potion. Hinduism believes that Astangi Mata is the mother of all living things, who sent her twins into the sky to become the sun and moon. Chanda, the moon, had her cheek brushed by her mother when saying goodbye, and so Indians see handprints in the moon.

In Europe and North America the tradition is the ‘man in the moon,’ who appears in endless songs, poetry and literature. In Christian lore, he is carrying a bundle of sticks as a penalty for disrespecting the Sabbath. A New Zealand Maori belief has a punished human in the moon too, but this is a woman, Rona, who disrespected the moon itself and so now spends eternity there as punishment. Hawaii has less of a crime and punishment theme, with a banyan tree being seen from which a woman called Hina makes cloth for the gods. National Geographic has illustrations of how each of these images is supposed to be observed.

They are all fascinating and diverse examples of how different cultures view the same universal phenomenon. Of course, what we are really looking at is a creature with the body of a chicken and the face of a zebra that is making immortality cheesecake for the entire human race, as punishment for not holding the door open for God at a McDonald’s once. Okay, of course what we are really looking at are the lighter colors of the highlands of the moon, the mountains, and the darker colors of the “seas.”

Interesting cultural lore aside, the real reason we see images in the moon, or indeed imagine them in anything where they are not, such as Christ in a potato chip, is because our brain is wired to look for familiarity. “A consequence of the brain’s tendency to match stored information with new stimuli,” as National Geographic put it.

In fact, Joel Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, Chicago, used an MRI study to conclude that the brain behaves, in terms of blood flow, in exactly the same way when processing unfamiliar patterns as it does with familiar ones.

Astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that our ability to recognize a face was advantageous because it meant that children could smile back at their parents when recognizing their faces, and therefore were more likely to have good care taken of them. Another obvious explanation seems to be that in the very common (and more so for earlier humans) situation that a human is confronted with an unfamiliar threat, it must at least be-able to quickly recognize that the thing has a face and is a creature (which may eat us), even if everything else is unfamiliar. This is essential for fight-or-flight.

Sometimes, our keenness to recognize something living may lead to us seeing living things where they are not, but better to end up noticing imaginary things in the moon than thinking a tiger is just a big splodge of harmless lines and colors.

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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