Why Do I See a Face at Skull Rock?

Skull Rock is a large rock shaped like, as you guessed it, a skull. You can find it fairly easily in California’s, Joshua Tree National Park. But how did this rock shape come to be and to dive a little deeper, why do we as humans see faces in so many inanimate objects? These were the questions I was asking myself back in 2019 while staring at this rocky skull. Let it be known that I am not a scientist in any way, I just consider myself a curious person.

So how did Skull Rock come to look like what it is today? Well the short answer to that is through erosion. Water droplets get trapped within the small cracks of the granite rock. Then, over a very long period of time, the water slowly erodes the rock, making those small cracks bigger. Bigger cracks means more water gets trapped and that cycle continues until we have the two hollowed out ‘eyes’ and the skull shape we see today.

But how is it that we even associate this as a face at all? Not just with this example of Skull Rock but really in so many other things we see in our daily lives. Well for this answer we turn to psychology. In fact, I was surprised to find that this phenomenon even has a name: facial pareidolia. We as humans are deeply social creatures and that has been a strong factor in our evolutionary history. Studies have shown that the need to recognize faces is something deeply ingrained into our psyche. So seeing a face in a rock, or a person in a piece of toast or any other kind of object is just our active nerves creating something like a false positive. The human brain is hardwired to look for things with two eyes and a mouth or nose. A recent study at the University of Sydney even shows us that it goes even further, not only do we look for faces but we even interpret emotions to them as well, all within a fraction of a second.

The answer turned out to be one part geology and one part psychology. So I guess we can’t help but see a face at Skull Rock. All of this is just barely touching the surface on both the fascinating history of the geology around Joshua Tree and the study of facial pareidolia. I encourage anyone interested to click any of the links below to learn more.