Stephen McCulley, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeon. MBChb, FCS(SA)Plast, FRCS(plast)

How does your brain react to your mirror image?

Chess pieces in mirror

If you’re preparing for cosmetic or reconstructive surgery then chances are you’ve spent a lot of time looking in the mirror either assessing exactly what you want to change, talking it through with your surgeon or imagining what your surgery will give you.  But do you know what happens to your brain when you look at yourself? Recent research has revealed some fascinating facts about the neurons darting around your mind when you look in the mirror and even how a mirror’s presence in the room can affect a whole group of people. 

Reality or Fiction?

The mirror is a mesmerising object.  Straddling the boundary between reality and fiction, the mirror at once allows us a rare opportunity to look at ourselves clearly, but also provides an image which isn’t entirely true.  It’s an object through which we can explore questions of perception, the self, how we see ourselves emotionally and physically and how we estimate our position in space.  Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool, who conducted a study into our relationship with mirrors, comments that,

In a sense, mirrors are the best ‘virtual reality’ system that we can build.  The object “inside” the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object.”

The power of the image

You might not think putting a mirror in the room has much impact other than possibly causing distraction, but research has suggested that it can have significant effect on behaviour.  A mirror in the room can make people work harder, be more helpful and be less inclined to cheat.  It can also influence people’s perceptions of others, making them less likely to demonstrate prejudices based on race, sex or class, for example.

Recently experts have started to discover just how powerful the mirror image can be and something called “mirror therapy” has been developed.  Mirror therapy has successfully treated disorders such as phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis. Mirrors have been used to reflect images of patients’ limbs and other parts of the body tricking the brain into healing quicker.

The truth about images

Dr Bertamini’s research has found that our understanding of the mirror image and how it relates to us is way off the mark.  Overwhelmingly, people estimated that the size of the mirror image would be pretty much the same as the thing looking in the mirror and that, if you step away from a mirror backwards, your image is likely to shrink.  Both answers however, are wrong.  Stepping back will not affect the image whatsoever; it will remain the same size as it was when you were standing close – half the size of the real life object.

But it’s not just geometric perception that we tend to get wrong.  Our perception of the way we look tends to lean towards self-flattery.  In a line-up of random faces, individuals are far more likely to identify their own face if it has been enhanced to be 20% more attractive.  We’re also more likely to say our airbrushed, touched up image is our true face.

So next time you look in the mirror be aware that although it may look a lot like you, your brain could be playing all sorts of tricks and showing you a version you’d like to see rather than your true self!

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