The Mystery, Half-Truths &
Misperceptions About Mirrors
If you’re not blind, and there’s nothing neurologically odd with you, how do you know how your face looks like? Your best bet would be using a mirror, right? Well, not quite.
In fact, it’s likely that the image you see in front of you is an emotional, highly-subjective composite of what you think you should look like. In that, mirrors are devilishly deceiving.
For what it’s worth, though, your educated guess is still closer to the truth than anyone else’s. Alas, no one is free from emotional biases when looking at somebody else’s likeness.
In other words, truth doesn’t usually belong in the same sentence with the word mirror. That’s because what you see is an interpretation, yours, of what is supposed to be on the other side.
As you scrutinize that reflection, everything seems to reproduce the side of things that’s surrounding you. And yet, crucial details fool and elude you once and again.
THE EERIE COPY
As many mystics have said about the world itself, one may describe and list the inventory of things it contains, and still fail to define it. In the case of mirrors, odds get freaky really fast.
That can be triggered at a first glance by checking one of its supposed qualities: its ability to ‘mirror’ the physical world. For, after your hand suddenly switches to the left, things only unravel even further.
You may understand perfectly how is that so and still be baffled by it. Other oddities, sitting on the outer edge of common perception, may also catch your eye. But nothing compares with the view of your own face.
That’s when we’re more susceptible to inaccuracies of judgment about what we’re seeing, as the brain works overtime to concur pre-determined notions with what’s right ahead.
THE VENUS EFFECT
Scientists now think that what distinguishes animals who are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror from others, who’re indifferent to it, may be their social lives.
Thus apes, dolphins, and Asian elephants, all living within sophisticated social groups and well aware of their own position in them, are able to watch and check their bodies in front of the mirror the way humans do.
But, since we’re way more complicated, albeit not always more intelligent, we often get spooked at the realization that what we’re seeing may not be completely accurate, even when our brains are not addled by anything.
So much for all that ‘eyes are the mirrors of the soul’ business. More like smoke and mirrors, if you ask psychologists, who keep finding new ways to show how we seem to suspend rationality when looking at ourselves.
Take the so-called Venus effect, for example. Its origin dates back from ancient depictions of the Roman goddess of love, thus Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, who depicted her with a mirror in her hand.
At first, and for countless internalized ‘conclusions’ thereafter, people tend to believe that Venus is looking at herself, which would be virtually impossible given the angle of the mirror.
The precision and vivid accuracy of the Dutch grandmaster Johannes Vermeer‘s paintings have astonished and intrigued scientists and art lovers alike for three centuries. But it was only recently that architect Philip Steadman published his findings about the artist’s likely secret (besides his genius): he may have used a mirror device.
Software designer Tim Jenison went further and created the contraption. Not just that, he taught himself to paint (and to speak Dutch) and use it to create an impressive reproduction of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. The duo of magicians Penn & Teller shot a documentary on it. It all seemed to make sense but many didn’t buy it.
TALKIN’ TO ME?
Clever movie directors have only preserved this illusion by showing an actor, say, Robert de Niro, in that famous ‘Taxi Driver’ scene, in front of the mirror. In that, as in most cases, he’s either looking at the camera, or to a corner of it, but unlike to be ‘facing’ himself.
Since placing lenses directly behind the scene would ruin the take, cameras with a set of, you guessed, mirrors inside, are used these days, to allow a sideways view of both the actor and his image.
Art of course has long traded on the concept of the mirror as a foreign land, laden with mystery and otherness. In Jean Cocteau’s film version of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, the character of Jean Marais actually penetrates one to rescue his lover from the depths of Hades.
Arguably, Rene Magritte‘s most celebrated painting is La Reproduction Interdite, but some forget he actually has a work named (more)
* The Way We Look
* Suspended Animation
* Seeing Through
Le Faux Miroir, currently at the MoMA, in New York City. Other artists too have intensely worked on the theme of parallel worlds, with varying degrees of impact.
A VERSION OF SELF
Still, despite widespread use and common knowledge about this far-from-special effect, most people would still believe that film actors are actually looking straight at their own image in the mirror.
It gets even worse when we look at pictures of ourselves and others. Experiments show that we not just assume erroneous preconceptions of angles and field of vision, but often unconsciously engage in self-deception and games of one-upmanship.
A 2008 study has demonstrated how we naturally choose computer-enhanced pictures of ourselves that make us look attractive, over those without any artificial improvements. But when it comes to other people’s shots, we pick those least enhanced, on which they appear less attractive.
So we should always look at the image looking back at us in the mirror with a bit more than a grain of salt. For what we are seeing is a version of reality, exactly like the version of ourselves we choose to recollect, regardless of whether it’s real or not.
There’s no absolute depiction of reality, of course, and even the eyes on the same face have, each, different fields of vision and perspective. We seem completely unable to simply watch and see.
When it comes to mirrors, we engage in an intense, but hardly self-aware, process of scrutiny and creation of a ‘version’ that can satisfy several areas of our brain and emotional state.
THE BREAKABLE LUCK
Fair enough, since the nature of vision itself is a complicated negotiation of light, the retina, eye mechanics, and, above all, an interpretation that’s, ultimately, dictated by the brain.
There are many intriguing cases of neurological disorders in which a person can see and yet, is unable to ‘put together’ what he or she sees. Neurologist Oliver Sacks discussed some of these brain afflictions on his books, including his own lifelong prosopagnosia. But that’s not the case.
The way the perfectly functional brain ‘sees’ the world is a carefully ‘constructed’ picture, which takes into consideration many factors. The description of what’s in front of the person often trumps the actual meaning of such a picture.
Without oversimplifying the experience of seeing oneself in the mirror, the way the Michael Jackson song does, there are literally much more than meets the eye coming out of that glassy window.
The thin space between the surface and backside of a mirror can actually accommodate a lifetime of prejudice, fear, grimacing exercising, careful grooming, and unredeemable self-loathing.
It can also be a source of inspiration for whimsical gestures and grievous regret to the one standing this side of it. It can, in fact, be so loaded with questioning and probability, that’s a miracle that more people don’t try to break it more often.
As we ever so carefully lock up the bathroom door behind us, we open a universe of possibilities all dutifully watched by that piece of reflective glass. The choice is then ours: we either get overtaken by weariness, suspicion, or plain terror. Or simply spend the usually obscene amount of time monkeying around and picking on our face in the mirror.
(*) Originally published on August 15, 2011.