By Emma Meyers
There is a magical mirror on the third floor of Schermerhorn. It stands alone, full length, against the wall in the ladies’ room, reflecting back images that are more beautiful than real life. I swear, this mirror has the uncanny ability to make your legs look longer, waist look smaller, and all your clothes fit you perfectly. I’m not the only person to notice this – without fail, someone is always standing before it, fixing her hair, adjusting her outfit, or just generally ogling at the image staring back at her. So, this morning as I shouldered my bookbag and watched the latest mirror gawker (and maybe try to get a glimpse of myself around her as I passed), I wondered what about this mirror, and mirrors in general, that allows us see something so different from reality when we’re staring back at ourselves?
Through a variety of brain imaging studies looking at how subjects identify photographs of themselves and discriminate between their own faces and those of others, a slew of brain regions have been implicated in self-recognition. In addition to general face recognition areas like the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe, researchers at the University of California have found that a specific network of the right inferior frontal and parietal lobes is active when subjects view their own faces. When viewing photos of their own faces morphed with those of others, the more “self” they perceived in the images, the more active their frontoparietal network was.
But, even with our own faces mapped out in our brains, we’re not entirely foolproof when it comes to self-recognition. In fact, psychologists at the University of Chicago and University of Virginia have shown just how vulnerable we are to our own deception. When asked to identify a picture of themselves in a lineup of images of their faces morphed to look more or less attractive, experimental subjects tended to select attractive morphed faces as their own. This phenomenon, known as self-enhancement, was found to be linked with implicit – but not explicit – measures of self-worth. Essentially, our brains automatically and unconsciously distort what we see in the mirror, and it seems that our personal self-concepts are incongruent with how both others and the camera lens construe our looks.
Mirrors can deceive the brain in much more complex ways than by just enhancing our faces, as well. Take University of California, San Diego researcher Dr. V. S. Ramachandran’s mirror box: a contraption designed to trick the brain into believing that mere reflections of limbs are actually a part of the body. The box, simply comprised of a vertical mirror reflecting one hand and blocking the other from view, was originally created as a means of providing pain relief for amputees experiencing internally generated but very real pain in their amputated (or “phantom”) limb. When the reflection of their intact hand was aligned with the perceived location of their phantom hand, patients reported feeling like the reflection was actually their missing limb, and that movements of their good hand reflected back were perceived as movements of the phantom. These strong physical sensations show us just how powerful the visual system and how easily what we see can override reality in the brain.
So maybe it’s not the mirror after all. With all self-enhancement and strange visual-sensory attributions our brains are capable of, maybe the too-good-to-be-true images that mirror shows us exist only in our minds, neural composites of angles and light and an unconscious bias that we’re just that good-looking. Our brains are tricking us, not the mirror itself. But then again, if our only experience of the world is what our mind shows us, is it truly trickery when we see what’s not there? Maybe the reality is that it’s all smoke and mirrors.