What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?
Recognizing yourself is more complicated than you’d think.
Posted November 9, 2016 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
What do you see when you look in a mirror? “Myself, of course,” you reply. But what is your self?
Strictly speaking, when you look in a mirror, you see a face that you recognize as your own. This in and of itself is a remarkable feat—other animals generally can't do this. A dog looking in a mirror sees another dog. (At least, that’s what we infer from observing its behavior.) Human infants don’t seem to recognize their own faces, either.
But recognizing yourself is more than just identifying the face in the mirror as your own. When you flip through your photo album, you see yourself in that snapshot of a toddler on a tricycle, that picture of a grade-schooler standing behind a science fair project, the high school yearbook portrait of an awkward adolescent, and that photo of a svelte young adult in a college graduation gown. None of these look like the face staring back in the mirror. Yet somehow your self ties all these disparate persons together.
The concept of self is related to a number of ideas that include mind and consciousness. As Israeli neurobiologist Yochai Ataria points out, the subjective experience of a self that transcends the body is so compelling that it simply cannot be dismissed. And yet all evidence indicates that this experience of self somehow emerges from the electrochemical activity of that three-pound blob of fat and protein inside your cranium. When the brain dies, so does the self.
When I ask my Introduction to Psychology students where their mind is, they simply point to their heads. And asking, “Where is your self?” elicits a similar response. Many people today accept—without much thought—that their experience of consciousness, mind, and self comes from their brain. First-year students often use the words “brain” and “mind” interchangeably, and it takes a few semesters of psychology to grasp the difference.
Nevertheless, when we get to the chapter on states of consciousness, these very same students report experiences that contradict their belief that brain equals mind. The out-of-body experience (OBE) is one such example. In OBE, people experience themselves rising above and hovering over their physical body. Hallucinogens can induce out-of-body experiences, but some people have drug-free OBEs.
You may have never had an OBE, but you’ve likely experienced a milder dissociation between body and mind. In cases of extreme trauma or pain, many people report a sense that they've stepped outside of their body, becoming an outside observer of their own experience. Some people even deal with tedium this way. In my school days I would sometimes dissociate in class as the teacher droned on and on. (Now that I’m a professor, I notice that when I'm talking too much, my students reach for their cell phones—another form of dissociation, perhaps.)
A subjective experience may be compelling, but that doesn’t mean it’s real. The perceptual illusions that regularly spread through social media clearly demonstrate that subjective experience doesn’t always match physical reality: Was that dress really gold-and-black, or blue-and-white? Still, we can’t dismiss our sense of self as just an illusion. It probably is, but the important question is how the brain produces it—and why?
In a recent article, Ataria argued that our sense of self derives from language. We use language to communicate with other people and to think to ourselves. At around age 2 or 3, children begin talking out loud in a way that’s clearly not intended to communicate to others. They seem to use this self-talk to direct their own behavior. Within a few years, they learn to turn that self-talk inward, and from then on they maintain an internal monologue instead.
We all engage in this inner speech. When we read, we hear our own voice speaking the words. When we work on a problem, we talk out the steps in our head. As we go through the day, we make comments about the people we meet that we’d never dare say out loud. This running monologue inside the head, according to Ataria, is what constitutes the self.
I find this idea intriguing because it helps differentiate the interrelated concepts of consciousness, mind, and self. Most psychologists agree that all organisms with a nervous system experience at least a minimal level of consciousness. That is, they’re aware of their surroundings and can respond appropriately. Animals with complex nervous systems and highly developed brains, such as mammals, likely have a vivid conscious experience that includes an awareness of the external world and an inner experience of memories and emotions.
It seems quite likely, then, that your dog has a rich mental life. In other words, it has a mind. But dogs don’t speak, so there’s no reason to assume that canines have an inner monologue. Thus, we can say the dog has no self. And that’s why, when a dog looks in a mirror, it sees another dog.
Language gives us the ability to create a narrative that ties together all the experiences in our life into a coherent whole. We identify this self-story as our core essence. Although our bodies change over time, we experience the self as immutable. And that’s why, when we look in mirror, we see someone we know.
I am the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).
Ataria, Y. (2016). Body without a self, self without a body. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 1, 29-40.