An article about mirrors appeared in the New York Times two weeks ago, and its contents have continued to nag my mind. (An excerpt is on Slow Painting if you don’t want to read the whole piece.)

There are a number of threads in this piece that would be worth some time to delve into in more detail (like which species are self aware and recognize themselves when looking at a mirror), but right now I am going to just focus on just one—the human relationship with reflective surfaces.

Here is an example:

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 nonmirrored 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.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” 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.

But then it gets even more personal:

In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,”…Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

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?” he said. “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.”

The article goes on to explain why the version of ourselves that we see in the mirror is always exactly one half our actual size. (I know this sounds counterintuitive, but consult the article for the full scientific explanation.) So not only do we misread our relative attractiveness, we also misread our size.

Does this give you a sinking and slightly sickening feeling that we can ever really “get” who we are? For a number of reasons I found the results of this research deeply uncomfortable as well as unnervingly accurate. How many times have you misread how you look? Misjudged those new glass frames only to discover, $400 later, that they look terribly unflattering on your face? How many times have you bought that dress that you swear made you look sleek and sexy in the dressing room but in subsequent photographs your rear end appears hopelessly jumbo sized? It just isn’t possible–we cannot be objective when it comes to that other self that lives in the virtual reality we call our mirror image.

Maybe it is just one more aspect of ourselves we cannot ever see accurately. My friend Linda once said, “I wish someone had given me ‘the paragraph’ when I was younger.” I asked her what “the paragraph” was.

She said, “All your friends know your strengths and your weaknesses. They could, if they were so inclined, give you a one paragraph description of who you are that yes, could be painful, but could also be very helpful in how you live your life. But you rarely get that insight. It just lives out there. Maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll find someone who will give it to you. Or maybe you will actually find it yourself.”

I’m feeling more sympathy for my cat, not a member of a species that is self-reflective, who cannot see her “self” in a mirror and generally gives it little of her attention. Maybe I’m just one tiny step beyond her, seeing something I think is me that is, in fact, far from the paragraph I really need.

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