I know you’ve seen ’em . . . in the bathroom at night, looking into the mirror and you notice the reflection looking back at you doesn’t seem right . . . there’s something off about that face, it’s staring at you . . . and the eyes aren’t your eyes, they’re the eyes of something menacing, something dark, something very very wrong . . . a hint of evil chills the air . . . you felt it, that chill in the back of your brain, that soft tremor of fear . . . there it is again.
Or, you notice something in the corner of your sight, something dark, and cold, and menacing . . . something that can’t be there . . . something that’s gone when you look directly at it . . . but when you turn back . . . there it is . . . in the corner of your sight . . . slowly moving toward you. There’s that tremor again.
Esther Inglis-Arkell discusses this sort of thing . . .
It seems that the brain, in specific situations, literally gets bored and starts scaring you. The easiest way to prove this is to perform the simple experiment of looking steadily into a mirror, for a few minutes at a time. Soon, you’re very likely to see a monster. That monster is a combination of your face and your brain. Does that make it better or worse?
There are a lot of creepy situations that start happening when you look in the mirror. Low light and a fearful mood certainly help, but the primary reason why people have so many mirror related freak-outs, and why it’s become such a big game at slumber parties, is straight biology. The brain doesn’t have the energy or the processing power to notice everything all the time. Sitting at your computer now, you’re probably unaware of the feel of the seat under you, your clothes against your skin, and any lingering smells you might have noticed (no judgement) when you walked into the room. Your mind mostly tunes them out. But the sense that most of us rely on almost all the time, sight, has also been narrowed down. You are probably unaware of anything outside of the range of the computer screen, and you probably haven’t noticed minor changes to that. That is why most updates on computers come with a sound or a blinking light.
The brain, when faced with a lot of stimulation, only some of which is considered relevant, will tune out the non-relevant parts, filling in what it can from the general area. It’s a little like how the blind spot works, except this is a dynamic process. The brain will zoom in on a desired area, and the rest of the space will fade away. This is called the Troxler Effect, or Troxler Fading. It was discovered way back in 1804 by Ignaz Troxler, a physician and philosopher. Take a look at the circle to the right (or, click the image to go to the full size version). Focus on the red dot at the middle. After less than thirty seconds, the circle should just fade away. The mind then fills in the area where the circle used to be with the white that surrounds it. It’s worth doing an image search on Troxler Effect, since there are a ton of illusions with it on the internet. There are whole paintings that fade away. There are moving objects that disappear with enough focus. You can spend a happy twenty minutes observing your brain erase the world.
A less happy ten minutes would be spent staring in a mirror. A paper in Perception outlines an experiment in which people were asked to stare into a mirror, in low light, for ten minutes. They do not sound like a fun ten minutes, according to the report.
The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).
The Troxler Effect fades out features that a person isn’t directly staring at. Those features are filled in with what’s around them. It works on a white background, but a face looks horrifying when, for example, a slice of forehead and cheek are subbed in for an eye. Plus, the effect doesn’t stay in one place. The Troxler Effect wanders over the entire face, distorting it massively. The person then often instinctively turns those distortions into things that they can actually recognize, even if it scares them. This is how mirror monsters, like Bloody Mary, develop. The brain gets tired of processing the mundane and, accidentally, cooks up a monster to entertain us.
Seriously, the Troxler Effect can be very disconcerting. Here’s the write up of the experiment by Giovanni B Caputo of the Department of Psychology at the University of Urbino in Italy from 2009. His paper is titled Strange-Face-in-the-Mirror Illusion I encourage my students and other interested parties to give it a go. Sit in the dark staring into your mirror as per the description and see what happens.
I describe a visual illusion which occurs when an observer sees his/her image reflected in a mirror in a dimly lit room. This illusion can be easily experienced and replicated as the details of the setting (in particular the room illumination) are not critical.
These observations were made in a quiet room dimly lit by a 25 W incandescent light. The lamp was placed on the floor behind the observer so that it was not visible either directly or in the mirror. A relatively large mirror (0.5 m60.5 m) was placed about 0.4 m in front of the observer. Luminance of the reflected face image within the mirror was about 0.2 cd mÿ2 and this level allowed detailed perception of fine face traits but attenuated colour perception. The illusion occurred even at higher levels of illumination of observer’s face (from 0.2 to 1.6 cd mÿ2 ). The task of the observer was to gaze at his/her reflected face within the mirror. Usually, after less than a minute, the observer began to perceive the strange-face illusion.
Phenomenological descriptions were made by fifty naive individuals (age range 21 ^ 29 years; mean 23 years; SD 2.1 years). At the end of a 10 min session of mirror gazing, the participant was asked to write what he or she saw in the mirror. The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).
The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear (Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new traits. A possibly related `multiple-faces’ phenomenon (Simas 2000) has been reported for photos of faces placed in peripheral vision. In this case, the reported deformations of features include variations of the facial traits and expressions or appearance of new ones like teeth, or a beard, as well as completely new faces, 3-D distortions, rotations, upside-down faces, the subject’s own face, sometimes younger or older.
Clearly, there are similarities in effects for peripherally viewed photos and centrally viewed self-reflections in dim light. However, in central viewing, the perception of the face is more accurate, making the distortion more salient, and, because the distortions are of one’s own face, the effects are amplified from merely intriguing to often unsettling.
The two types of distortion (peripheral versus low-illumination central viewing) can be compared by viewing one’s own face in ÅÙÆ profile in a mirror in peripheral vision.
From a perceptual viewpoint, the strange-face illusion may be explained by disruption of the process of binding of traits (eyes, nose, mouth, etc) into the global Gestalt of face (Thompson 1980). This long-term viewing of face stimuli of marginal strength may generate a haphazard assembly of face traits that generate deformed faces or scrambled faces. Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top ^ down accounts seem to provide adequate explanations.
The participants reported that apparition of new faces in the mirror caused sensations of otherness when the new face appeared to be that of another, unknown person or strange `other’ looking at him/her from within or beyond the mirror. All fifty participants experienced some form of this dissociative identity effect, at least for some apparition of strange faces and often reported strong emotional responses in these instances. For example, some observers felt that the `other’ watched them with an enigmatic expressionöa situation that they found astonishing. Some participants saw a malign expression on the `other’ face and became anxious. Other participants felt that the `other’ was smiling or cheerful, and experienced positive emotions in response.
The apparition of deceased parents or of archetypal portraits produced feelings of silent query. Apparition of monstrous beings produced fear or disturbance. Dynamic deformations of new faces (like pulsations or shrinking, smiling or grinding) produced an overall sense of inquietude for things out of control.
Static face pictures and the distortions seen when they are peripherally viewed (Simas 2000) involve the binding of face traits. In contrast, self-perception in a mirror engages a far broader set of processes as the image duplicates one’s own face perfectly in space and time, triggering an integration of perceptual, motor, and proprioceptive processes. It is a dynamic process involving self-motion and autonomous self-exploratory control of facial pose and expression (Rochat 2002). The construction of our self-identity includes, among other processes, the capacity to recognize oneself in the mirror, a competence acquired in childhood between 2 ^ 3 years of age (Zazzo 1981). Another aspect of the strange-face illusion is the potential breakdown of self-identity that may take place when gazing at a strange new face that has replaced one’s own in the mirror for a relatively long time.
See here for his references.
See http://io9.com/5906432/an-optical-illusion-that-explains-the-origins-of-imaginary-monsters for the io9 story.
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