Litmus Test for Self-Awareness
Let us return to normal perception again and describe an observation we made in collaboration with Eric Altschuler of UMDNJ–New Jersey Medical School.
Have a friend sit behind an ordinary writing desk. In front of the desk, place a mirror so that it covers it completely and you can see only your friend’s torso behind the desk. Now stand at a distance of 20 feet from the desk, look at her and carefully align her torso with the reflection of your lower trunk and feet. Now walk toward the desk, and you will see your friend “walking toward you” with her feet moving in perfect synchrony with your own. If you are among the lucky 75 percent of subjects, you will have a spooky sensation of an out-of-body experience with “you” out there inhabiting your friend’s body, presumably because this is the only way your brain can interpret the perfect synchrony of her legs and yours. Try having her move her face a bit. Does that enhance or diminish the effect?
You may ask why this effect does not occur when you simply walk toward the mirror looking at your own reflection. The answer is twofold. First, can you really be sure it does not? When you shave or put on makeup do you not, at least to a limited extent, “project” yourself into the mirror? Perception is a multilayered phenomenon—hence, it is prone to endless paradoxes in contrived situations. Second, given your lifelong experience with mirrors, you have become habituated; just as horses are not normally scared of their own shadows. A feral child (or man) seeing himself in a mirror the very first time might indeed experience himself inhabiting the stranger in the mirror.
Finally, Gordon Gallup, Jr., now at the University at Albany, has suggested that mirrors can provide a litmus test for self-awareness, a topic that has been much discussed by philosophers for two millennia. When a chimp is asleep, dab a splotch of paint on its forehead. If you show it a mirror when it wakes up, it will spontaneously reach for its forehead to remove the splotch; it does not reach into the mirror. This response may or may not tell us that the chimp is self-conscious, but it does show that the chimp knows that it is looking at itself in the mirror and that it is looking at a reflection—a capacity that eludes monkeys. They fail the test.
We saw a 70-year-old neurological patient recently who, despite her progressive Alzheimer’s-type dementia, remained fairly intelligent and articulate. Her main presenting symptom, disturbing to her family members, was that she was terrified of seeing her own reflection: mirror phobia. She kept referring to it as a malevolent phantom twin who was following her. So all reflecting surfaces in her house had to be covered. Yet when we did the Gallup mirror splotch test on her, she passed, reflexively removing the splotch. This experience shows that merely passing the test does not indicate that you (whether you are a person or a chimp) are aware at a conscious level (“believe”) that what is in the mirror is really “you.”
Thus, mirrors have vast implications, whether for demonstrating the role of visual feedback in treating pain and paralysis or for the psychological and philosophical issues surrounding construction of body image and sense of self by your brain. There’s plenty to reflect on.
This article was originally published with the title Reflections on the Mind.