National Geographic News
Photo of the full moon.

Depending on where you're from, you might see a man, a rabbit, or a pair of hands in the full moon.

PHOTOGRAPH BY VALERY HACHE, AFP/GETTY

Nadia Drake

for National Geographic

Published April 12, 2014

For as long as humans have lived on Earth, the moon has been our nearest celestial companion, and a rich natural canvas for the human imagination. When the Earth passes between the moon and the sun early on April 15, resulting in a total lunar eclipse, darkness will cover the craters and mountains in which humans, for millennia, have spotted faces and figures.

In Western cultures, perhaps the most familiar vision is "the man in the moon." In East Asian cultures, moon-gazers might point to a rabbit; in India, a pair of hands. From ancient times to the modern era, from different spots on the globe, a tree, a woman, and a toad have all been found hiding in the moon's shining face.

Graphic of the moon.
PHOTOS: PAULO CASQUINHA (NORTHERN HEMISPHERE); JOHN SANFORD, SCIENCE SOURCE/PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC. ART: HANNAH TAK, NG STAFF

"When you first look at the moon, you pretty much see light areas and dark areas, and some are more gray than others," said planetary geologist Cassandra Runyon of the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. "The lighter areas are the mountains, often referred to as the highlands. The dark areas are volcanic—the mare, which is Latin for 'seas.'"

In the contours and colors of the lunar surface, people can find meaningful figures for the same reason that we "see" the face of Elvis in a potato chip or Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich. It's just the way our brains work.

"The brain is really a predictive organ," said Nouchine Hadjikhani, a neuroscientist at Harvard University. "We try to find sense in the noise all the time, and we fill things with information."

The phenomenon of seeing faces where there are none is a form of information-filling called pareidolia. It's something all humans do.

Looking for Meaning

Joel Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, Chicago, is studying how our brains help us ascribe meaning to otherwise random assortments of shapes and lines. In studies, he has presented research participants with computer-generated squiggly lines—meaningless shapes derived from triangles or circles—and asked subjects whether the shapes resemble something meaningful.

"About half end up being meaningful, on average," Voss said.

Voss used fMRI—a neuroimaging procedure that measures brain activity by tracking changes in blood flow—to study the brain regions activated when a person sees the squiggles. He found that the same areas involved in processing actual, meaningful images lit up when the squiggles were viewed.

"To your visual system, there's no difference between a picture of a frog and some weird collection of dots and lines you've never seen before that vaguely resembles a frog," Voss said. "Your brain is very happy to treat those things as the same thing."

Brain Wiring and Storytelling

Why do our brains do this? In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, astronomer Carl Sagan offered a possible explanation. Perhaps recognizing faces, even in vague shapes, was evolutionarily advantageous, Sagan suggested: "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," he wrote.

Voss proposes another explanation. Think of the human brain as a flexible, all-purpose machine meant to succeed in whatever random environment it inhabits. To triumph in strange places, Voss says, the brain must be able to quickly process unfamiliar visual stimuli—like new shapes and lines—and figure out what's worth paying attention to. Seeing faces and figures is merely a consequence of the brain's tendency to match stored information with new stimuli.

"Although we see the world as this very structured, object-containing environment, it's really just a bunch of random lines and shapes and colors," he said. "The reason why it's so easy to see meaningful things in nonsense shapes is that those nonsense shapes have a lot of the same features as meaningful things."

In scientific terms, what a moon-gazer sees may come down to brain wiring. But through the ages, what civilizations perceived in the moon's face took on greater significance, in the preservation of cultures, origin stories, and beliefs.

"The night sky is one of the greatest storytelling panoramas," said Adrienne Mayor, a science historian at Stanford University in California who studies how ancient cultures interpreted data and derived meaning from the natural world.

"Things in the natural world are the hints and clues for the story," Mayor said. "When you see the moon, you remember the story you heard when you were a kid and you pass it on."

51 comments
Donal Heffernan
Donal Heffernan

If there was no moon, then there would be no faces on Earth. For it was, and still is, the influence of the moon on our planet that played a major role in the evolution of life. Indeed, so strong was this influence that it is likely and very conceivable that life would never have succeeded here without it. So, here's looking at you, Kiddo.

Lily Vining
Lily Vining

This is a perfect article and it helped me understand so much more than I ever thought on the subject! Thank you!

Faith Atamako
Faith Atamako

I had never seen any of these images in any of the moon's documentaries. This is where, no matter how intelligent man may be, he will never be able to discover the secrets of nature (God). There are some things He want to be kept secret, else man will be over proud of whatever knowledge he think that he have. Like the documentations of the sun, if man should take a proper look, he will discover that there are changes in the sun each day.

Faith Atamako
Faith Atamako

In Nigeria, we see a woman with a baby on back (backed with a cloth), holding an axe (raised above her head), with a log of wood in front of her, posing as if cutting the wood. In my home town (Isoko, in Delta State, Nigeria), it is believed that, a long time ago, the woman was cutting woods into bits with the axe while the moon was shining, and the moon took her up. That is why it is forbidden to cut wood at night in my home town.

Kuppa Subrahmanyam
Kuppa Subrahmanyam

Since past moon is believed to influence people particularly on new moon and full moon days, so, it has become part of human life. Some section of astrologers track the changes of moon phases for predictions. Afterall "CHANDA MAMA" is the maternal relative to every person on this earth.

Grief G.
Grief G.

I have a pretty good imagination but when it comes to the moon, all I see is a bruised orange photographed in black and white...

Gwenny Todd
Gwenny Todd

Why do I NOT see faces?  Or things in clouds?  I have always wondered.

Connie Koehler
Connie Koehler

These are FABULOUS photos of the moon. The rabbit I have always seen in the moon is facing the other direction holding an egg. Our view of the moon is the northern hemisphere.

keshav garg
keshav garg

but most beautiful thing seen from the earth........................................................................

keshav garg
keshav garg

crab or a claspers - i always use to think

Noel Cramer
Noel Cramer

The "European"  Man in the Moon (image B) can also suggest a football player, with Mare Crisium (upper right of northern disk) being the ball. I have met a few people who see that.

Tj Ennever
Tj Ennever

To be honest I could not find anything

Stefano Cò
Stefano Cò

decisamente interessante e favoloso! lo sapevo che la luna è il nostro specchio!!!!!

Gh R.
Gh R.

I see the Dalai Lama's face, wearing his sunglasses, in the upper right corner.  His face is looking upward.  :)

Duong Yen
Duong Yen

In Vietnam, we see the tree in the moon like in Hawai. The tree is call "DA" and we have traditional sroty about this.

Elaine Rodriguez
Elaine Rodriguez

If you see the moon

The moon sees you

God bless the moon

And God bless you!

WARREN HINZE
WARREN HINZE

I can not see the moon I live in Seattle

Robert McClelland
Robert McClelland

We see the Indian in the moon... siting with head forward with a feather on the head. I grew up seeing the man in the moon till a Blackfoot indian elder showed me different, now I cannot see any other image

Christopher Watts
Christopher Watts

I see a large undeveloped region loaded with the potential to make me billions of dollars, and destroy the moon like we are doing here.

Nancy Lilja
Nancy Lilja

I would like to know what is it at the bottom of moon that makes it look like the bottom of the Naval orange? It is a question. Can anyone answer?

Graham C.
Graham C.

PS.. We also saw Wallace and Grommet returning !!

Graham C.
Graham C.

In Australia on the Blood Moon we all saw a Jack Rabbit !!...

Pedro Carlos Alves
Pedro Carlos Alves

I see craters, orography and different types of surfaces...
Maybe it's because I wasn't brainwashed when young.

Roberts Leinau
Roberts Leinau

I once saw moon on a freeway ... it appeared to have a fissure.  It looked like a fraternity brother. 

bob martin
bob martin

same with me I cant see any of it

Sara Grover
Sara Grover

I've never been able to see a man in the moon. take out the lines and i wont see it. *shrugs* Just a bunch of craters to me.

Aeris Gains
Aeris Gains

i see a man in the moon , I thought I was the only one who saw it ! 

Rick Barnes
Rick Barnes

I see Betty Rubble. You know, Barney's wife!

Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

I thought I was the one and only who saw a rabbit on the moon! I am a moon subject, cancer born, so I guess I love moonlight nights more than some. And would be thrilled to see the lunar eclipse.I am as simple as bread and butter, and know only what I know! But not as simple as the old man talking to his son saying,'If men as they say, have been on the moon, why did'nt it fall down? Because its so small and we so big."This is a true story.   j.e.s........

Eric Appell
Eric Appell

In addition to this phenomenon being called Pareidolia, it's also referred to as False Pattern Recognition, as well as Patternicity and/or Apophenia, defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

These sorts of things are often pointed out within Semiotics, also called semiotic studies and semiology, the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication.

Jerry Ela
Jerry Ela

The Hare in the Moon by Natalia Belting - a fable i have learned last 1983 when I was in grade 2.. :)

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

I have long seen Jack and Jill in the moon, I was taught that as a kid.

Donal Heffernan
Donal Heffernan

@Gwenny Todd  Some people have very little imagination. You probably have little or no interest or appreciation of other people's works of art?

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

@bob martin  I've heard this suff sice I was a kid and ineversawany "man inth moon" or a ofhsuu onthis page.


I have however see images I  otherthings suh as rock formations, clouds ad other things.

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