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Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?
September 19, 2010 4:21 AM   Subscribe

The strange face in the mirror illusion. Full Article.
posted by Brent Parker (61 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bloody Mary

Bl͟òo̴dy̡ ̢Mąry̵

B͍̟́L̘̩̞̤͝ͅO̸͉̜͡O̦̝̝Ḏ̻Y̵̢̝̫̻͖̞̝ ̩̞͙͘͠ͅM̥̮̳̯̺̬̹̙̞A̴͉͕̟̪͍̜̯͔͕͡͞R̞͈̯͚̭͕̠̘̮͞Y͕͕


posted by Rhaomi at 4:40 AM on September 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


Fascinating. I wonder what would happen if you did this every day (not gonna find out).
posted by iamkimiam at 4:41 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Creepy. I'm not even gonna try it.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:04 AM on September 19, 2010


Part of me wants to try it out of pure scientific curiosity and the other, bigger, smarter, part of me knows that I'd then have to cover up all the mirrors in the house forever. Huh. Dilemma.
posted by lydhre at 5:14 AM on September 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


Oh, this happened to me sorta involuntarily when I was a kid. Nope, not gonna do this to myself on purpose.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:15 AM on September 19, 2010


just did a few half-assed searches trying to find a reference for my fuzzy memory: if i recall, john lennon did this (popularized it, if briefly) when he was trying to kick heroin. would stare at his own reflection for sometimes hours at a time. which, i surmise, is where this came from.
posted by msconduct at 5:16 AM on September 19, 2010


I used to stare in a mirror on long car trips when I was bored of reading (anything for entertainment, and it beat fighting with my brothers. usually), maybe somewhere between the ages of 6 and 10. I don't remember ever noticing a visual change, but the sense of disassociation was pretty creepy. I eventually stopped doing it when I decided that it was the Devil looking back at me out of the reflection. Perhaps more neuroscience in my religious grade school would have sent me down another career track altogether. Or, perhaps, I would have summoned the Devil.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:16 AM on September 19, 2010


The evil older brother in me would like to point out in lieu of solid neurological evidence, there is a chance that instead of an illusion, you have actually summoned and witnessed something in the mirror.

And now it knows you know it's there.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:18 AM on September 19, 2010 [29 favorites]


That blog might eat my entire Sunday. Thanks?
posted by Shutter at 5:26 AM on September 19, 2010


Just so you all know, I've turned on every light in the house, the tv, the radio, the heater... I've closed the curtains, the bathroom door, the closet, and when I go to bed I'm taking paper and tacks to cover up the faces in the exposed wooden beams in my ceiling. Thanks a fucking lot.

I'm imagining a sudden power failure and a loud attack by some sort of something. At least it'll be quick.

Thanks a fucking lot. Like I don't have enough problems getting to sleep at night. Better believe I'm trying this tomorrow in the light of day though. Great read.

Of course a power failure wouldn't be unexpected considering I've just turned on every light and appliance in the house. And fuck, if anyones watching the 20/20 champions league, tell me if you're seeing technical difficulties...

And now it knows you know it's there.

...but this could possibly be my favourite ever sentence ever ever.
posted by doublehappy at 5:29 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


You guys are nuts for not trying this out. Talking to dead people is fun - they are just lonely - be nice to them.
posted by Brent Parker at 5:35 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I remember as a child staring at well-known logos (like Exxon, MTV, McDonalds) and after about 10 seconds my brain would deconstruct them to a collection of meaningless shapes and colors. Funnily enough I am now a graphic designer and have created my share of logos...although as a 40 year old, it's harder for my brain to do this trick.
posted by punkfloyd at 5:40 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I honestly thought I'd be the first person to post "no fucking way I'm trying this." Glad to know I'm not alone in being creeped out by the idea. I already avoid even glancing into mirrors in a dark/dim room (going to the bathroom at night, f'rinstance) because I'm scared I'll see something weird and get freaked out.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:17 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, and this reminds me of another depersonalization trick my mother told me about: to have an out-of-body experience (or more likely, the sensation of one), sit in a place where you won't be disturbed, and think about yourself in the third person. Ask yourself, "who is John Smith?" over and over (use your own name, in case that isn't obvious.) After contemplating yourself as a stranger for a few minutes you may start to feel disconnected from yourself and possibly the sensation of floating.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:22 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


What are you scared of? Seriously. It's a visual cortex phenomenon, not dead people. Be adult
posted by A189Nut at 6:38 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Years ago I read about William S. Burroughs doing this and tried it for myself. Seeing my features shift and change was interesting at first, but eventually it just got creepy and I quit doing it.
posted by cropshy at 6:38 AM on September 19, 2010


but I don't want be adult.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:05 AM on September 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


I came here mostly to say what msconduct and cropshy already have about Lennon and Burroughs, but I'll add that I remember reading about Lennon doing this as a kid. Here's something I found after Googling "lennon mirror kid genius": A Visionary Speaks For Himself About His Life and Times (Ugh, sorry about the title, and the content... I'm sure more reputable sources cover the same information). Click and keyword search for mirror.

I used to do it all the time, too, as a kid. It's a form of self hypnosis, and the room doesn't even need to be particularly dark. Just focus on your own eyes to the exclusion of all else and watch the world melt away. Something similar happens if you stare at large repeated patterns as well, like skies, or brick walls, or fields of grass. I remember waiting for the schoolbus in mornings and zoning out to fields of frosty grass, watching the random patterns merge into highly organized and geometric ones.

I would do this in the classroom, too, by staring at the patterns on the chalkboard until they began to combine and swirl and coalesce into a technicolour carnival of light. Of course, I must've looked positively handsome while zoning out thus, because I was once called an "ugly little toad" by my teacher and ejected from the classroom. Apparently my eyes had been crossing and uncrossing in some Exorcist-like way.

That teacher later became our town's mayor. I moved.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 7:32 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Now drop some acid and do it. I dare you.
posted by Splunge at 7:33 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


It just works like a search engine.
Or, like we can see in movies sometimes: a computer doing face analysis and going through thousands of faces in the database to find a match.

The key part (that they don't mention) is not blinking.
When you let your focus wander and try not to blink, liquid movements become visible on the surface of the eyes and transform your image.

Your mind tries to adjust and to "recognize" what it sees, but water on the cornea moves all the time and your mind works like a search engine: everything that is in the "database" and might share key features appears briefly.

When you blink, it's like a reset: you see your own image clearly, but the movie can start again if you want to.

It's a fun way to check what is in your database.
What? You really have monsters in your database? Interesting. Can you tell me more about them?
posted by bru at 7:35 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


This post as video.
posted by BeerFilter at 7:39 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Shit, this happens every time I drink a six pack of king cans.
posted by bwg at 7:41 AM on September 19, 2010


For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.
posted by 7segment at 8:23 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I used to do this all the time as a kid. It also works by staring at someone else in the dark. I don't know how many nights that my sister and I would freak ourselves out by doing this. We did this for years. It's actually kind of a cool effect, there's nothing to be scared of.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:32 AM on September 19, 2010


Can I just say that I would love to be a fly on the wall at this guy's tenure review?

Head of committee: "So, Dr. Caputo, tell us more about this ground-breaking research you've been doing. What was your research protocol?"

Caputo: "Um...sitting in a dark room with a 25 watt lightbulb hanging behind me staring into a mirror."

Head of committee: "?!"
posted by felix betachat at 8:40 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Imagine discovering this on your own under the influence of dimly understood Carlos Castaneda, teen angst, and quasi-legal psychedelics.

Now that I know how to reliably reproduce it, though, I'll be getting a 25-watt bulb while I'm out today. Anything to confuse that foolish ego.
posted by cmoj at 8:45 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have prosopagnosia, and don't get a very strong sense of self-recognition when I look in the mirror. For this reason, I find mirrors very irritating, as they always give me the feeling that somebody is trying to catch my eye.

I wonder how this phenomenon would work for me. I'm going to try it when it's dark, later tonight.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:52 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Please report back about your experience, Dreadnought!
posted by interrobang at 9:09 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've seen something like this in the faces of other people that I was looking at for a long period of time in the dark (well, dimly lit). I search out familiar places on the face and I just don't see them. It does get disconcerting. I'll have to try it with myself now too.
posted by Hactar at 9:18 AM on September 19, 2010


I think Laura Dern probably does this every day.
posted by hermitosis at 9:41 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Uh, yeah. Tried this and lasted about four seconds before starting to lose my shit. I'm looking forward to trying this again when I can have like three people hugging me at the same time.
posted by threeants at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I tried this and my face turned into a Rorschach-like black veil. Neato, but where are the monsters?
posted by greatgefilte at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2010


Frequently during lab meetings I have a similar(?) experience. If the person sitting next to me is addressing the group and I turn to look at them (so that I am seeing their profile from about 50 cm away) after a few moments their face will take on a whole new character. The ear becomes like a surrogate eye so that I perceive them as if I am looking directly into their face- a very strange face. It is disturbing and I have since stopped looking at the person next to me when they talk.

Unless the meeting is running too long and I have basically checked out anyway.
posted by palacewalls at 10:38 AM on September 19, 2010


We used to do a variation of this as kids by placing a candle in the middle of a table and sitting across from a friend. The candle had to be the only light. The effect happened quickly that way.
posted by umbú at 10:55 AM on September 19, 2010


Huh. I didn't think I'd see many people say "I won't try this"... because I thought everyone tried this at some point or another already.

You're forcing me to re-evaluate how strange a kid I was.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:32 AM on September 19, 2010


Man this resolves a long standing issue. I have always been wary of mirrors, agreeing with borges wholeheartedly that mirrors are an abomination. I used to think that it was because I had a nightmare as a kid that I saw a face in the mirror that wasn't mine, strangely distorted. Even to this day, I only give sidewise glances at mirrors. To this day, the very concept gives me chills, reading this article gave me chills, and the trailer to Black Swan (arnonofsky) freaked me right out. I guess what must have happened is that, as a kid, I must have wandered to the sink in the middle of the night, and been subject to this illusion. wow.
posted by dhruva at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2010


A lot of these illusions are simply neurons 'wearing out'. If you look at something red, sensors in your eyes signal the redness to your brain. But if you stare at it, you run out of 'red juice' in your eyeballs - So look at something else and you'll see a green/blue afterimage. Pretty much everything in your brain works this way.

I'd never thought about it in terms of staring at your own face. Freaky.
posted by delmoi at 11:52 AM on September 19, 2010


Interestingly, this kind of thing happens for me during, um... hrm... intense extended play sessions in a dimly lit space. There's a kind of transformation which happens to my playmate, some kind of archetypal something or other. I'm not the only person who has reported this, either. It's not unwelcome, and it's certainly not frightening, but it is peculiar and (for me) has only been experienced in those kind of circumstances.
posted by hippybear at 12:03 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Slightly related
posted by Busy Old Fool at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2010


This reminds me of one of the better quotes from my all-time favorite creepfest, The Mothman Prophecies:
"Last night I... I woke up... with the worst headache I've ever had in my life. And I... I went into the bathroom.... to get some aspirin? And I happened to look in the mirror. And... I swear to God, I see something... I can't describe. But it sure as hell is not my reflection.

And then, I hear... this weird... howl... coming out of the sink. And there's a voice. It's a voice... and it's saying: Do not be afraid. Ninety-nine will die. Denver nine. I even wrote it down. He just keeps saying the same thing over and over, for an hour... and then it stops.

And when I wake up this morning, I look at this piece of paper where I wrote down the words. This thing was on it. I did not draw that."

"Gordon?"

"What?"

"Gordon, you -- your ear's bleeding."
See also: DON'T LOOK IN THE MIRROR!
posted by Rhaomi at 12:51 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whatever you do just DON'T STARE AT YOUR TOAST TOO LONG!
posted by Twang at 1:22 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rhaomi: "This reminds me of one of the better quotes from my all-time favorite creepfest, The Mothman Prophecies"

I love that movie, flawed as it is.

Distorted reflections are a visual theme of the whole movie, actually, there are a bunch of them, several scenes start out with the camera looking in some sort of reflective surface before turning to show the actual thing, etc.

And then there's that thing in the closet door mirror. I just shuddered thinking of it, even though I haven't seen the movie in years.

This illusion and its possible connection to the Bloody Mary legends is also mentioned in this awesome feature article, "Myths over Miami", which is full of weird urban folklore creepiness.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:33 PM on September 19, 2010


Can I just say that I would love to be a fly on the wall at this guy's tenure review?

Head of committee: "So, Dr. Caputo, tell us more about this ground-breaking research you've been doing. What was your research protocol?"

Caputo: "Um...sitting in a dark room with a 25 watt lightbulb hanging behind me staring into a mirror."

Head of committee: "?!"


felix betachat, here's a transcript of the next 30 seconds of that review...
[Faculty looking back and forth at each other, nervously]

Head of committee: "I suppose you were naked?"

Caputo: "What? No!"

Head of committee: "Then... your graduate students were naked?"

Caputo: "No!"

Head of committee: "Test subjects?"

Caputo: "I was alone!"

[general sigh of relief]

Head of committee: "Carry on. We'd be delighted to hear about your research."

...

Heck, this passes for boring, amongst psych/sociology experiments.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:38 PM on September 19, 2010


MeFi Tweet: Tried strange face illusion with Macbook camera in dim room. Saw strange face, but, unfortunately, no illusions.
posted by dgaicun at 2:30 PM on September 19, 2010


What are you scared of? Seriously. It's a visual cortex phenomenon, not dead people. Be adult

That's weird, you didn't say Candleja
posted by Evilspork at 2:35 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, that's wrong -- you've got to say "Candlejack" first, then wait a little bit befo
posted by Rhaomi at 3:52 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


not otn b afraid of illsuin
n ot deafd pelople reutn posssessin
looka t self hahaha lol
is funn!
not possessson bhy dead ok yu tryy now
posted by No-sword at 3:55 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


We did a trick like this once in theater class in middle school. Had the whole class pair off and sit facing each other on the floor, with each person staring in her partner's eyes and being told to imagine the partner's face turning into their own. Not to imagine your own face turning into theirs, mind.

I'm a huge guy and was then, too. I was paired with a waifish blonde girl who was probably 4'10'' standing on a dictionary. Maybe as theater kids we were all already more prone to the powers of suggestion, but I'll still swear that after about 15 meditative minutes (it took a bit just to get everybody's giggles out, predictably), as I watched I saw her brow expand and her chin-line drop down and go square, and while the instant I sat up straighter and yelped a little noise so did about half the class. Not only did we all experience the illusion of our partner's faces changing into our own, we all experienced it at almost exactly the same time. This remains one of my most interesting formative adolescent moments.
posted by penduluum at 3:58 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This rules
posted by danb at 5:08 PM on September 19, 2010


Reminds me of the Amazing Stories episode entitled Mirror, Mirror. In it, a big-time horror writer-turned director (modeled loosely on Steven King) makes the mistake of saying nothing really scares him. Every time he looks in a mirror afterwards, he sees this black apirition in the corner of his field of view. Every time he looks, the figure gets a little closer.

One of the top-ten scariest things I can remember about the 80s.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:53 PM on September 19, 2010


Reminds me of the Amazing Stories episode entitled Mirror, Mirror. In it, a big-time horror writer-turned director (modeled loosely on Steven King) makes the mistake of saying nothing really scares him. Every time he looks in a mirror afterwards, he sees this black apirition in the corner of his field of view. Every time he looks, the figure gets a little closer.

One of the top-ten scariest things I can remember about the 80s.


Dammit. That just brought back flashes of the Slender Man photo sets I was up all night looking at a while back.

I'll never fuckin' sleep tonight now.
posted by hippybear at 6:10 PM on September 19, 2010


What are you scared of? Seriously. It's a visual cortex phenomenon, not dead people. Be adult

Not when there's something in the mirror that knows I'm here now, hell no.
posted by nomadicink at 7:34 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Please report back about your experience, Dreadnought!

Darkness has now fallen, here, and I have been able to replicate Dr Caputo's experiment under conditions almost exactly as he described in his paper. As I said above, I was curious to see how my experience, as a prosopagnosiac, would differ from those of a psychometrically normal person.

Methods: I sat, for a period of ten minutes, before a large mirror at a measured distance of 40 cm. Unfortunately, I didn't have the correct equipment to measure light levels in the room. I attempted to achieve the low levels of light required by placing a low-wattage table lamp on the other side of the room, behind and to my left so that it was not reflected in the mirror. My 'assistant' let me know when one minute had passed, so as to test Dr Caputo's claim that the illusion usually became evident after 'less than a minute'.

Findings: The illusion described was, indeed, almost immediately apparent and very striking. Before the first minute had elapsed, the face that I saw reflected in the mirror appeared as though it had begun to darken considerably. I have relatively pale skin, but my reflection began to look as though it had been streaked with dark paint, rather like that worn by soldiers as camouflage. The whites of my eyes also appeared to considerably darken, as if they had become bloodshot. As Caputo points out in his paper, colour perception becomes attenuated in low light levels, so I was unable to see if my eyes appeared to have 'reddened', or simply to have become a darker shade of creamy-white.

As the illusion progressed, I noticed a distinct blurring and doubling of my features, as if I were looking at them reflected in a double-glazed window. As my eye made small movements, these blurred images seemed to move around randomly, and the reflected features became greatly distorted and undulating, sometimes appearing to loose a proper sense of depth in a 'flattening' effect which might account for Caputo's subjects reporting that their reflection had seemed like a 'portrait'.

Eventually, after a space of some two minutes, my reflection appeared to fade out completely (in a fashion consistent with the Troxler effect), leaving visible only the pupil of the eye at which I had been staring. Here, however, I made an interesting observation:

While staring at the pupil of my eye, I found myself unable to avoid small, irregular eye movements. Every time this happened, the afterimage of my 'blanked out' face became superimposed on the very briefly visible 'normal' image of my face, but at a slight offset. The result of this was to give me brief flashes of an image which was recognisably a face, but overlaid with intense dark patches which, following the contours of my face, took on the appearance of deep shadows. With a little imagination, I could see such an image as representing an 'aged' version of myself or perhaps as being another face entirely. As it was, however, I had no difficulty seeing the image as simply my own face overlaid with dark splotches. I hypothesize that this lack of identity dissociation might be a consequence of my severe prosopagnosia.

Possible Influence of Prosopagnosia:
I don't normally experience a strong sense of self-recognition when I look at my face in the mirror. As I had suspected, then, I felt no particular sense of alienation from the person I saw reflected in the mirror during the course of the experiment. I knew that it was my reflection, and my mind accepted this with no more difficulty than it does at any other time in which I look into a mirror. I had no sensation that I was looking at another person, or at an animal. At early stages of the illusion, depth perception began to break down while dark areas (shadows) became heightened and my face did, indeed, look something like a portrait, but seeing it this way took a conscious act of imagination, and I never felt that it would be a portrait of somebody else.

Conclusion: I expected that staring at myself in the mirror for ten minutes would be very dull but, in fact, the illusion was sufficiently striking that I found it quite entertaining. While I was clearly able to see the illusory distortion of my reflected face, I did not experience the feeling of identifying that face with another person, nor did I feel the impression that the face in the mirror was 'watching' me. I hypothesise that my impaired ability to identify faces made me unable to process the flashes of the 'changed' face in the mirror as being images of other people. While I was amused by the experiment, I did not find it either unsettling or comforting.

Try this at home, kids. It's really neat!
posted by Dreadnought at 7:58 PM on September 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


A lot of these illusions are simply neurons 'wearing out'. If you look at something red, sensors in your eyes signal the redness to your brain. But if you stare at it, you run out of 'red juice' in your eyeballs - So look at something else and you'll see a green/blue afterimage. Pretty much everything in your brain works this way.

Maybe this would explain why my laptop screen seemed to distort, kinda like barrel distortion from a camera lens, I think it's called, while I was reading today (MetaFilter, I think). It was kind of interesting...
posted by nrobertson at 10:56 PM on September 19, 2010


This sounds really cool, I can't wait to try it. I've had a number of depersonalization experiences that I found really traumatizing though ultimately helpful in the long-term.

Not to thread de-rail, but can anyone give me a link to the other mirror-face illusion where the shape of your head stays the same even if you move backward from the mirror? It's not creepy, just totally bizarre and counterintuitive. I've been wondering about it lately but can't remember the right terms to google.
posted by meadowlark lime at 12:04 AM on September 20, 2010


ƧƎYƎ ЯUOY ˩˩ƎMƧ ИAƆ I
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:10 AM on September 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


I wonder if this is what made Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present so moving for so many people. Hours and hours of staring right at her face probably triggered a similar event.
posted by odinsdream at 6:39 AM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


And now it knows you know it's there.

I used to do this all the time, but I quit when the poor guy on the other side of the mirror started to look really freaked out staring back at me, like he was seeing some stranger filled with malevolence peering into his soul, judging him..

I felt bad for him, really I did. What with a soul that looked like that...
posted by quin at 9:13 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


This happens to my dog all the time, instantly and in all lighting conditions. That other dog in the mirror freaks him out.
posted by Doohickie at 9:21 AM on September 20, 2010


Be adult

No!! Nooooo! Nononononono!! You can't make me! You're not the boss of me! No, no, no, no, no!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:43 AM on September 20, 2010


I tried this (back lit with a flashlight in a dark room). It's kind of trippy fun, but not scary. My face started to look really swollen, especially my eyes and my nose. My eyes looked like big, puffy black eyes, except red and not black. The illusion went away immediately if I refocused my eyes or switched my gaze too suddenly. I'm the type of person that can get hypnotized if I want to be, and it was a similar sort of mental feeling. The weirdest part was the day after I did this - I quickly glanced at an elderly Asian man on the train (I am a 20-something white woman) and my brain immediately thought "that's who you turned into!", even though he actually looked nothing like what I saw in the mirror. The brain is a strange strange thing.
posted by fermezporte at 7:47 AM on September 21, 2010


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