Oh god, that's me
The horror in the mirror

When young children during their early development for the first time get their head around the fact that the reflection in the mirror is them, they are struck with a terrifying realization: All at once it dawns on them that this is how they present themselves to the world – and that the world might be repulsed by the sight. Animals, it seems, are not able to make that discovery.

Throughout human history, mirrors have always been associated with the odium of the sinister and the uncanny. For example, Narcissus fell hopelessly in love with his own reflection, while in vampire stories, mirrors are powerful instruments for deciding who is alive and who is already dead. In many horror film, the look in the mirror exposes a monstrous alter ego. There is even a pathological fear of mirrors, known as eisoptrophobia or catoptrophobia. This phobia is abundant in (mostly female) patients suffering from “body dysmorphic disorder”, which in Germany is also called “ugliness delusion.”

When adults who have never before seen their own reflection are confronted with a mirror for the first time, they go through an unsettling experience, emphasizes psychologist Philippe Rochat from Emory University, Atlanta. This was shown over 30 years ago, when anthropologist introduced mirrors to members of an isolated tribe, the Biami, living in the Papuan plate, where neither slate or metallic surfaces exist, and where rivers are murky, not providing clear reflections. What they saw gave them a nasty shock: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension. “

The question is why is there such anxiety associated with mirror self-experience  - the ‘‘tribal terror of self-awareness”, as the anthropologists called the response of the Biami. According to Rochat, young children undergo several distinct stages of development in dealing with their own reflection:

1. The first period is of mainly sociable behaviors toward the specular image. Infants between 3 and 12 months tend to treat their own image as a playmate.
2. A second period is accounted for by the end of the 1st year;  infants appear to show enhanced curiosity regarding the nature of the specular image, touching the mirror or looking behind it.
3. By two years, the specular image is associated with radically different behaviors. Toddlers become typically frozen and sometimes behave as if they want to hide themselves by tucking their head in their shoulders or hiding their face behind their hands. They tend to cry and show embarrassment.
4. Finally, a fourth period starts at around 14 months but peaking by 20 months in which the majority of tested children demonstrated embarrassment and  coy glances toward the specular image, as well as clowning.

For Rochat, the disturbing experience of 2- to 3-year-olds in front of mirrors is evidence of the children’s growing “metacognitive” abilities, in particular, their aptitude to hold multiple representations and put themselves in the shoes of others, earning a conception of what they may look like from the perspective of their beholders. “ The recognition of the self in the mirror is also the recognition of how the self is publicly perceived.” In a certain way, this behavior is not unlike that of criminals hiding their face from the cameras. Their behavior indicates a drive to vanish from the public eye, as they come to realize via the experience of their own specular image how they present themselves to the world. 

“The malaise might result from the realization of a fundamental discrepancy between how the child represents himself or herself from within, and how he or she is actually perceived by others as reflected in the mirror.” The discovery of the face that one objectively present to the outside world may be traumatic, because people demonstrably hold an overestimated representation about the self. Humans are prone to an “illusory superiority” that moves  them to overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits. Our image of ourselves is at odds with what is actually seen by others, the latter “truly” revealed in the mirror.

Rochat speculates “that mirrors would bring about the experience of a generalized gap between private (first-person) and public (third-person) self-representations, a gap that is the source of basic psychic tension and anxiety, the expression of a generalized social phobia and universal syndrome expressed from the age of 2 to 3 years.” Driven by the basic fear of rejection, we realize that what others are actually seeing of ourselves might repulse them. “It might cause estrangement and rejection, a universal deep-seated fear in all of us, except in sociopaths and others with pronounced narcissistic personalities and whose psychopathological symptoms revolve ultimately around social disconnection and delusion.”

The experience of possessing properties that might be disliked or outright rejected by ones peers is source of primal existential fear. “Rejection is the epitome of punishment, something that is universally recognized as the source of the worst psychological suffering. Across cultures, it is the prime choice of repayment for crimes toward others and toward society at large.” Ostracism causes pain and desperation, because our basic need for belonging, self-esteem, control, and recognition is thwarted.

Hearing a recording of one's own voice for the first time produces a similarly uncanny sensation. When we speak naturally, the sound waves reach our ears in two ways, via air conduction and bone conduction. But when we hear our recorded voice, the sound waves reach our ears only by air conduction. When we hear a recorded version for the first time, we realise we have a squeakier voice than we previously thought. The recognition of the "objective" self-voice is also the recognition of how the self is publicly perceived. More:

Oddly enough, chimpanzees and other animals who are thought to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror are not prone to recoil at the sight of their mirror image. When confronted with their reflection for the first time, they behaved like rollicking children, made silly grimaces and chattered with evident amusement.  It appears that our nearest relatives in nature are not equipped with an outright “theory of mind” and are thus unable to see things (and themselves) from the other’s perspective. They are mercifully exempted from the insight that their conspecifics might be repulsed by their sight. So whenever you hear or read somewhere that chimpanzees and other animals can recognize themselves in the mirror, be aware that this is not true in the deepest sense of that expression!

PS: Jean Paul Sartre had it right: 

"The Other is the one who looks at me, the one who reveals my being as object... The Other is the hidden death of my possibilities." “I am ashamed of myself before the Other.”  "The other is hell."

Hearing recordings of one's own voice for the first time produces a similar effect:


Rochat, Philippe: Self-consciousness and the origins of the ethical stance. In: Kar, Bhoomika Rastogi (Ed), (2013). Cognition and brain development: Converging evidence from various methodologies. APA human brain development series., (pp. 157-171). Washington, DC, US

Picture source:  https://lynettepagemakeupartistry.wordpress.com/tag/shiny-forehead/
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