Mirrors have a sinister reputation that I feel is well deserved. I may have an explanation as to why this may be so – and it has nothing to do with Narcissus!
Meanings of the word ‘sinister’ – like ‘misleading’, ‘intending to deceive’, ‘dishonest’ – as well as those that have to do with the ‘left’, particularly the left hand side of the body – can be applied to mirrors with some justification. For a start, mirrors swap left and right. Among representations we encounter of ourselves – photographs, video, portraits – it is only in a mirror that we will see ourselves right/left reversed. Perhaps for film stars and models, with their characteristically symmetrical faces, this may appear to be of little consequence, but for the rest of us the face we see in the mirror is not the face that other people see when they look at us.
Bizarrely, the face we see in a mirror is a ‘secret face’ that others only ever see if they are standing beside us. It is as secret as the portrait of Dorian Gray. Though our secret face may not present to us a corrupted soul, I believe I can show you that it is still peculiarly strange.
The hemispheres of our brains are not identical. There is a mountain of evidence that each hemisphere perceives the world in quite a different way. The right hemisphere, controlling the left eye, directs our attention. It takes in the totality of our visual field, and is particularly interested in perceiving emotion. The left hemisphere, controlling the right eye, only properly sees the right side of anything. Additionally, we know that it is the left side of a face that is more involved in emotional expression. This may be why we tend to cradle a baby to our left, in the direct view of our right hemisphere, and so as to bring the most expressive half of our face to the baby’s attention. All of this has interesting implications for what happens when we look at ourselves in a mirror.
Our brain reacts to our reflection as it would to looking at any other person. However, unlike any real person, our reflection has its right and left reversed. Guided by the right hemisphere, our brain will seek out our reflection’s left side – except that our reflection’s left side is actually a reflection of our right. We are thus deceived into perceiving the emotionally less expressive side of our face as if it were the most expressive. The left hemisphere, registering only the right of whatever it is looking at through the right eye, sees not, as it would with every other person you have ever met, the emotionally expressive left side of our face, but the less expressive right side, the side that it controls.
Given all of this, is it any surprise that we should find mirrors sinister? We look into them imagining we are seeing ourselves as others see us, and instead see someone who is unlike anyone else we have ever seen, someone subtly alien.
*When I took this photograph on my Mac using Photo Booth, I noticed that the corner of the painting behind me was on the ‘wrong’ side, and discovered that Photo Booth – unlike every other camera I’ve come across – mirrors the image it takes. A quick investigation suggested that apparently Apple do this so that their users will feel that their ‘selfies’ are a good likeness. An interesting confirmation of one of the arguments in this post.
a related post
the curse of mirrors and photographs