“Mirror, mirror…”

“A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world : everyone you meet is your mirror.”

— Ken Keyes

As children we would have heard of Snow White’s stepmother, questioning her own reflection in the mirror: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” That would have introduced, in those tender years of our life, some sort of enigma about that malefic woman talking to her own image – to herself or to the mirror? However, our heart was with Snow White and the Dwarfs, and the childhood confusion was fast forgotten. Mirrors were relegated to the routine of our life.

But nowadays one could be intrigued by some birds, such as Conde and swallow pecking at the car’s side mirror and fighting their own image! Why can’t they recognize themselves?

That’s how the Mirror Self Recognition test – MSRT — was first conceived of in the 1970s. Species which can pass the ‘Mirror Test’ — foremost among them being homo sapiens — are said to be capable of self-recognition in the mirror; by the age of 18 months children can already do so. Can other animals imitate humans?

After being made accustomed to a mirror, a test animal is anaesthetized and a non-irritable, non-odorous red spot (a potou/tika) is put on its forehead. Depending on the species, some animals, after recovering completely from anaesthesia, would touch their forehead when facing a mirror again, just as a human would do and pass the test. These include the chimpanzee, the bonobo, one elephant, the bottlenose dolphin, the orcas, the Eurasian Magpie; they recognize themselves as separate beings from the reflection. Among the fishes, the giant oceanic manta ray would exhibit some “repetitive movements in front of a mirror suggesting of contingency checking”; it would swim towards its reflection with waving movements of its dorsal fin, and would even blow some air bubbles on some occasions. Could this be interpreted as a positive MSR test? Is it self- awareness? The debate is still on.

A dog uses its olfactory and auditory senses more than its sight, so that’s may be why it has failed that test.

Animals passing by a mirror typically progress through four stages of behaviour:

(1) social responses (becoming aggressive towards their reflection);

(2) physical inspection (looking behind the mirror);

(3) repetitive mirror-testing behavior;

(4) realization of seeing themselves.

One blind child, when placed in front of a mirror after recovering his sight, reacted to the Mirror Mark Test by touching his reflection instead of his forehead. That could prompt us to ask what kind of self-conception the totally blind have of themselves. And if all of us were blind, what type of collective consciousness would we have had? Has sight modulated our self- awareness?

The mirror and us

The ancient Greeks used to look at their reflection in a water container. Any disturbance to that reflection would be bad omen as it would take 7 years to re-stabilize one’s soul ; it is said that this tradition would later usher in the superstition of the broken mirror.

We are dead certain that it is our very reflection when we are in front of a mirror. But what if we sit in front of one and concentrate for minutes? We could suddenly become scared of the image we perceive, and even believe for a fraction of a second that it is someone totally foreign to us! Is it a sort of psychological dichotomy? Or is it that we regress to some primitive stage when self- awareness was blurred? That may never happen, or may do so once in a blue moon. Should this experience be recurrent, then one may be suffering a disease of the brain in a part called the temporal lobe disease, and must consult a psychiatrist.

Once there was a belief that if we have a mirror in a hall, then women passing by would look at themselves more often than men. But we men would draw our comb to do our hair. It could be it is a ploy to spy at our image in the mirror, and to gauge how others would be assessing us — an exercise into the theory of mind? For many it is just a narcissistic manoeuvre.

The question is: how much do we remember of our own past thousand reflections? However hard we try we cannot. Perhaps what we think we remember from that past is just a mental extrapolation from our old photographs. Is it possible that all those reflected images have been memorized, classified and laid down layer upon layer in some part of our brain, to build and reinforce our self-image and ego?

And how does a secluded hermit perceive himself as he goes through life by never looking at himself in a mirror? What happens to his sense of ego? And the ultimate question is whether the mirror has somehow played an important role in our conception of our selves, and change the course of civilization? It is mere speculation. King Louis XIV at his Versailles hall of a thousand mirrors and Donald Trump with the dozen of mirrors in his living room could give us a hint about their inflated egos.

Nowadays as we drive forward in our car, we humans have trained our mind to read those tricky, reversed images with confidence. How about those twisted, funny reflections that concave or convex mirrors at a fun fair throw back at us, thereby giving a jolt to our ego? Or still that medical school exposition where one would see the reflection of a man sitting on a chair, which would then gradually and mysteriously fade into an eerie skeleton in front of our very eyes courtesy of mirrors, play of light and darkness.

How about a wooden mirror! The trick was to place a miniaturized camera at the top of the frame; as we stand in front of that queer wooden ‘pixelled’ mirror our photo is transmitted to an electronic analyzer which breaks our photo into hundreds of ‘pixels’ which would stimulate another apparatus to modify the angles of the square pieces of wood in the frame – thereby replicating our photo on the wooden structure!

Should we be highly suspicious people then, as we walk into a hotel room and put our index finger against the mirror? If there is a space between our finger and its image then everything is safe, it is a genuine mirror. But should finger and image touch each other , then this is a sham one-way mirror – there could be someone behind it, spying on us.

Nowadays we talk of mirror neurons, a group of brain cells that are believed to promote our learning capacity. It is thought that they are responsible for the recent exponential progress in our modern mind and civilization, as we catch up fast in imitating our friends. Seeing someone yawning, we immediately have the urge to yawn, even if this is happening in a film!

The recent Mirror Therapy can give us food for thought.

The principle of Mirror Therapy (MT, invented by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran of California, to treat phantom limb pain) is the use of a Mirror Box to create a reflective illusion of an affected painful limb (say the left side, after a stroke) in order to trick the brain into thinking movement has occurred without pain. It involves hiding the left limb behind a mirror, placed perpendicularly to the body, which is so sited that the reflection of the right healthy opposing limb appears in place of that left hidden limb. The brain is thus humoured and trained to see the visual feedback of the intact right limb as its own left limb. And the patient makes “mirror symmetric” movements, as a symphony conductor might, or as we do when we clap our hands, to rewire his brain circuit. Many patients are said to get relief from pain and malfunction after that exercise.

Nowadays, we carry no mirror with us. But we do make up for it by being modern, taking ‘selfies’ with our mobile phones; we love seeing ourselves, our images or reflection and indulge in some narcissism.

Dr Rajagopala Soondron

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