If you want to experience the haunted mirror yourself you’ll need two chairs and, unsurprisingly, a mirror. With the chairs facing each other about a metre apart and the mirror propped up on one of them, make the room dark but not completely blacked out. Then sit in the empty chair and look into the mirror at your reflection for ten minutes. You’ll also need to be prepared for what happens next.
At first everything is normal but after a few minutes your reflection seems to twitch or change expression without you having done so. After this your reflection may start to resemble a mask, or something waxy and unnatural. Finally the reflection changes altogether, becoming someone else’s face entirely, with a stranger staring back at you in the mirror. Following that it’s probably best to throw the curtains back open and let sunlight flood the room while you read about the ideas behind the haunted mirror, and how they might help treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and schizophrenia.
Although the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces to invoke hallucinations has been known for centuries this particular effect has been studied for five years by Giovanni Caputo at the University of Urbino in Italy. At first Caputo thought that the effect might be caused by “neural adaptation”, where neurons respond less or stop responding at all to unchanging input.
This was first described in 1794 by Erasmus Darwin who observed that “on looking long on an area of scarlet silk of about an inch in diameter laid on white paper … the scarlet colour becomes fainter, till at length it entirely vanishes, though the eye is kept uniformly and steadily upon it.”
This, Caputo thought, might account for some of the changes seen in the faces. As the neurons stop responding to the unchanging reflection other parts of the brain try to fill in the gaps with guesses or memories. As we blink we refresh the visual stimulus and give the neurons a fresh stimulus to respond to. Whilst that might account for some of the changes what was behind the appearance of new features, or even entirely new faces?
Caputo suggests that it involves the fusiform face area, the part of the brain that is thought to be devoted to facial recognition. For evolutionary reasons our brains are extremely adept at looking for and recognising faces. This is how we recognise individuals, and is responsible for pareidolia – our ability to see faces in anything from clouds to light switches. The theory is that the instability of the reflection causes the brain to over-compensate and interpret the image as someone else’s face.
The participants in Caputo’s experiments have reported a range of strong emotional reactions to the illusions. Some saw them as approving or smiling, whilst others saw them as questioning or enigmatic. Others still saw them as malign or monstrous, and experienced strong feelings of anxiety. What they all reported were strong feelings of dissociation, with a definite sense of “otherness” relating to what they saw. Dissociative states are linked to PTSD and schizophrenia and the research points to potentially new ways of investigating and treating them.
When people are undergoing a traumatic event there is evidence that the more they are dissociated from what is happening the higher the likelihood they are of developing PTSD. This is because the feeling of otherness prevents the brain from forming a personal and contextual memory of the event. As a result the memories that do surface are experienced out of context and so appear as sudden and immersive flashbacks.
Caputo’s interest though is in schizophrenia, and the potential therapeutic use of the illusion. He is working on ways of people with schizophrenia using the mirror illusion to help externalise and address the personalities that they have internalised. There have already been encouraging results from a pilot study by Julian Leff, at University College London, using computer generated avatars. In this the subject is encouraged by their therapist to address and challenge the personality represented by the avatar, and the avatar altered to become more supportive and helpful. As a result the participants in the study reported reductions not just experiencing the voices less, and being less distressed by them, but also reductions in their levels of depression and suicidal thoughts.