"For the bubble-headed young Narcissus of myth, the mirror spun a fatal fantasy, and the beautiful boy chose to die by the side of a reflecting pond rather than leave his “beloved” behind. For the aging narcissist of Shakespeare’s 62nd sonnet, the mirror delivered a much-needed whack to his vanity, the sight of a face “beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity ”underscoring the limits of self-love.
Whether made of highly polished metal or of glass with a coating of metal on the back, mirrors have fascinated people for millennia: ancient Egyptians were often depicted holding hand mirrors. With their capacity to reflect back nearly all incident light upon them and so recapitulate the scene they face, mirrors are like pieces of dreams, their images hyper-real and profoundly fake.
Mirrors reveal truths you may not want to see. Give them a little smoke and a house to call their own, and mirrors will tell you nothing but lies.
To scientists, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of mirrors make them powerful tools for exploring questions about perception and cognition in humans and other neuronally gifted species, and how the brain interprets and acts upon the great tides of sensory information from the external world. They are using mirrors to study how the brain decides what is self and what is other, how it judges distances and trajectories of objects, and how it reconstructs the richly three-dimensional quality of the outside world from what is essentially a two-dimensional snapshot taken by the retina’s flat sheet of receptor cells. They are applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.
“In a sense, mirrors are the best ‘virtual reality’ system that we can build,” said Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool. “ The object‘inside’ the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object.” Dr. Bertamini and his colleagues have also studied what people believe about the nature of mirrors and mirror images, and have found nearly everybody, even students of physics and math, to be shockingly off the mark.
Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in non-mirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V.Bodenhausen and Alan B.Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. Dr. Bodenhausen said.
“A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.”
Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.
The mirror technique does not always keep knees from jerking. When it comes to socially acceptable forms of stereotyping, said Dr. Bodenhausen, like branding all politicians liars or all lawyers crooks, the presence of a mirror may end up augmenting rather than curbing the willingness to pigeonhole.
How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you.
“Which image is you?”
“Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”
What is it about our reflected self that it plays by such counter-intuitive rules? The important point is that no matter how close or far we are from the looking glass, the mirror is always halfway between our physical selves and our projected selves in the virtual world inside the mirror, and so the captured image in the mirror is half our true size.
When we gaze into a mirror, we are all of us Narcissus, tethered eternally to our doppelgänger on the other side."
-Natalie Angier (Excerpt:"Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes", NY Times, 7.22.2008, Image:- Parmigianino (1503-1540), Self-Portrait From A Convex Mirror, Oil On Convex Panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1524).
NOTE: "In order to investigate the subtleties of art Parmigianino set himself one day to make his own portrait, looking at himself in a convex barber's mirror." The painting stunned Renaissance Italy. It shows the artist at the age of about 21, romantic, his unkempt face unmanly, even feminine. It emphasizes the fantastic nature of his talent, of his right hand that draws and makes a world. As a celebration of the artist as a young man. The painter looks at us, at the mirror, boldly - this is the artist as hero. But what makes the painting unique is its gimmick. Spectacularly, Parmigianino has not only studied himself in a convex mirror but reproduced what he sees." -Jonathan Jones, (GuardianUK 1.18.2003).