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Monsters in the Mirror: No Really, Literal Monsters

Scientific study confirms some of our frightening superstitions with mirrors.

For most, particularly those with a tendency towards self-deprecation, staring into a mirror is not an experience deemed wholly pleasurable. Yet, what most people don’t realize is that gazing into a mirror, under the right conditions, can be downright terrifying.

Various Halloween-related folklore and games such as “Bloody Mary” have given us insights into the frightening potential of mirrors, but an article published in Perceptions in 2010 has lent some actual empirical and scientific credence to these ghoulish superstitions. In the study conducted by Dr. Caputo of the University of Urbino, participants were asked to stare into a mirror in dim lighting for ten minutes. Results demonstrated that 66% of participants experienced huge deformations of their own face, 28% saw an unknown person, and 48% saw fantastical and monstrous beings.

These surprising results beg the question: How can staring into a mirror possibly cause our faces to shapeshift into unknown and potentially terrifying deformations? The answer lies in our brain’s penchant for selective processing. In simple terms, our brains can only handle so much information at a time. Right now, as you’re reading this article, you probably aren’t noticing the feeling of your clothes against your skin, the pattern of your breath, or any of the delicate sounds around you. Your brain simply turns a blind eye to these various stimuli to better focus on what it deems most important (right now, these words). Our sense of sight works no differently. When faced with an abundance of visual stimulation, only some of which are considered relevant, our brains will tune out the non-relevant parts.

This phenomenon is termed the Troxler Effect, discovered long ago in 1804 by a physician and philosopher named Ignaz Troxler. It is this effect that underlies many of the optical illusions you can find on the Internet. Stare at a red dot in the middle of a circle for long enough and suddenly the outside circle fades away and disappears. This is because your brain has deemed the outer edges irrelevant and it has lessened its processing burden by simply fading it out of our perceptual domain.

Here’s a quick and popular example, try focusing exclusively on the red dot for about 20 seconds.

Maclen Stanley
Source: Maclen Stanley

Very similar to the shallow depth of field produced in a camera focused tightly on a singular object, our brains tend to fade out features we aren’t directly staring at and blend them together with the surrounding stimuli. Should one elect to gaze at a mirror, into their own eyes, for a significant period of time, it is possible that other areas of their face might begin to dissipate and blend into the mirror. Your face can suddenly look terrifying when, for example, your forehead starts to fade away or your cheeks morph into one large, brooding mouth. In time, your entire face can become distorted and transformed into this terrifyingly mangled monstrosity. Worse, our brains like to fill in things that they cannot recognize with things that they can recognize- never mind if those things are scary. Your incomprehensibly distorted face might morph into a monster you had once seen on television, locked deep within the synaptic catacombs of memory.

Having tried this experiment myself, I can attest that the effect is real. While I did not see or experience anything particularly traumatizing, I was nevertheless greeted with noticeable deformations in both shape and color along the outer edges of my face and eyes. My eye sockets, already deep-set by nature, appeared to sink further and further into my face, looking like two lunar craters. For those venturing to experiment with this effect, I admonish that the experience, while intriguing, can also be immensely uncomfortable.

More from Maclen Stanley JD, Ed.M.
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