Through the looking glass

The New York Times has a great article on the psychology of mirrors that shows that they’re both cognitively challenging and have the power to change our social behaviour.

As a kid I spent hours puzzling over the fact that mirrors seemed to swap left and right but not up and down and it seems that there’s much about mirrors that we just don’t get very easily – such as judging how big our reflection will be. As it turns out, it’s always half our size.

Another curious aspect is that simply the presence of a mirror in a room changes our social behaviour because it seems to make us more self-aware.

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 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.

Unfortunately, the article misses out one of the most fascinating scientific findings – the fact that our understanding of mirrors can be selectively impaired after brain injury.

It’s called mirror agnosia and is a condition where people lose their sense of reflection.

In these cases, the patient still has intact knowledge about mirrors, they can describe what they do and how they work, but they can’t seem to put it into practice.

For example, the patient stands in front of a mirror and the researcher holds a pen over the patient’s shoulder and asks him to reach for it. Most people would reach backwards, people with mirror agnosia reach forwards and bang their hand into the glass.

In this study, the researchers noted that “all four patients kept complaining that the object was ‘in the mirror’, ‘outside my reach’ or ‘behind the mirror’. Thus, even the patients’ ability to make simple logical inferences about mirrors has been selectively warped to accommodate the strange new sensory world that they now inhabit”.

Even more curious are cases of mirrored-self misidentification, a delusional variant where patients look into the mirror, see themselves, and believe it is another person.

Here’s a case description from a 2001 study of a patient with the condition:

TH described his reflection as a person who was a ‘dead ringer’ for himself. TH frequently attempted to talk to the person, and said that as the person never replied he could only assume he had something wrong with his voice or tongue. When asked what he thought the person’s personality was like, TH replied that the person had not given him any reason to be suspicious. Asked where the person lived, TH said he lived in an apartment adjoining TH’s own apartment (although there was no other apartment on that block of land).

Link to NYT article ‘Mirrors Don‚Äôt Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes’

2 Comments

  1. Posted July 23, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    That¬¥s amazing! As Ramachandran used mirrors to treat patients with phantom limbs, perhaps the use of mirrors in atypical populations lacking the propper development of the “social brain”, such as autistic people, could enhance their self-awareness and then the awareness of others.

  2. Darren
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the article. I’ve always found mirrors to be therapeutic in a sense you can boost your confidence levels. Telling yourself “it will be ok” in front of the mirror has always worked for me.


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