REFLECTIONS

The magic and mystery of the mirror

What is it we’re really seeing in those mirror reflections, those versions of ourselves staring back at us?

In Summary

• Perhaps what is most magically mysterious about the mirror is that it’s invisible.

• We can see where it is on the wall, see the frame that holds it, but the mirror shows your face, never its own.

Man points at a mirror
Man points at a mirror
Image: COURTESY

We see it everywhere. We are surrounded by its presence. We gaze at it every day, most times more than once. It comes in different sizes and shapes, but small or big, round or square we’re drawn to it all the same by what it shows to us.

I am talking about mirrors. Mirrors mounted on walls. Compact mirrors in the palm of a hand. Full-length dressing mirrors. And mirrors that are walls, like you’d find on the facade of a ritzy office building.

The mirror is simple but at the same time complicated. Its simplicity is in what it’s made of — a sheet of glass with a thin reflective film of metal on the back. What makes it complex is that it’s more than an object.

 

You buy it, you hang it, it’s a thing. But when you look into it, this object comes to life with live, moving images of ourselves and the world around us.

What is it, though, we’re really seeing in those mirror reflections, those versions of ourselves staring back at us?

In 1972, researcher Beulah Amsterdam discovered that by the age of 18 months to two years old, a child can recognise itself in the mirror. It is almost exclusive, this ability humans have to recognise self in a mirror.

But what is self when looking in the mirror? See yourself in a mirror. Move a little closer and look at the face in the mirror. You raise an eyebrow, and he in the mirror raises his. He looks like you but the more you stare and think about it, the stranger it becomes. That image you’re looking at is the you that you know from the mirror. But is it the real you that other people see?

In a mirror, we see a double but not an identical one. It is not self we see in mirrors but rather the person we hope other people see when they look at us. We’re looking with the eyes of the ‘other’ when gazing at our mirror reflection. It’s almost magical this view the mirror gives us from outside of ourselves.

Seeing this other estranged form of ourselves is like looking through a window into another reality, which is a copy of our reality and the physical space we inhabit but subtly different.

It is this same copy of reality in the mirror that seemingly flips words on a T-shirt from left to right when in fact, the flip is back to front.

 

Imagine a transparent sheet of plastic with words written on it. If you turn the sheet around so that people in front of you could read the words as they would on a T-shirt, then you look at the words from behind (through the transparent sheet), the words will appear as they would in a mirror — reversed — not left to right but back to front.

But perhaps what is most magically mysterious about the mirror is that it’s invisible. We can see where it is on the wall, see the frame that holds it, but the mirror shows your face, never its own for it has none, like a clock does or a painting.