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