I describe a visual illusion which occurs when an observer sees his/her image reflected
in a mirror in a dimly lit room. This illusion can be easily experienced and replicated as
the details of the setting (in particular the room illumination) are not critical. These
observations were made in a quiet room dimly lit by a 25
incandescent light. The
lamp was placed on the floor behind the observer so that it was not visible either
directly or in the mirror. A relatively large mirror (0.5 m60.5 m) was placed about
0.4 m in front of the observer. Luminance of the reflected face image within the
mirror was about 0.2 cd m
and this level allowed detailed perception of fine face
traits but attenuated colour perception. The illusion occurred even at higher levels of
illumination of observer's face (from 0.2 to 1.6 cd m
). The task of the observer was
to gaze at his/her reflected face within the mirror. Usually, after less than a minute,
the observer began to perceive the strange-face illusion.
Phenomenological descriptions were made by fifty naive individuals (age range
21^ 29 years; mean 23 years; SD 2.1 years). At the end of a 10 min session of mirror
gazing, the participant was asked to write what he or she saw in the mirror. The
descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of
one's own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent's face with traits
changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown
person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait
of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%);
(f) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).
The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler
fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this
explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear
(Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new
traits. A possibly related `multiple-faces' phenomenon (Simas 2000) has been reported
for photos of faces placed in peripheral vision. In this case, the reported deforma-
tions of features include variations of the facial traits and expressions or appearance
of new ones like teeth, or a beard, as well as completely new faces, 3-D distortions,
rotations, upside-down faces, the subject's own face, sometimes younger or older.
Clearly, there are similarities in effects for peripherally viewed photos and centrally
viewed self-reflections in dim light. However, in central viewing, the perception of the
face is more accurate, making the distortion more salient, and, because the distortions
are of one's own face, the effects are amplified from merely intriguing to often unsettling.
The two types of distortion (peripheral versus low-illumination central viewing) can be
compared by viewing one's own face in ÅÙÆprofile in a mirror in peripheral vision.
From a perceptual viewpoint, the strange-face illusion may be explained by disruption
of the process of binding of traits (eyes, nose, mouth, etc) into the global Gestalt of face
(Thompson 1980). This long-term viewing of face stimuli of marginal strength may
generate a haphazard assembly of face traits that generate deformed faces or scrambled
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Perception, 2010, volume 3 9, pages 1007 ^ 1008
Giovanni B Caputo
Department of Psychology, University of Urbino, via Saffi 15, 61029 Urbino, Italy;
Received 15 May 2009, in revised form 11 May 2010
faces. Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the
idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face
processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous
beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory
of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top ^ down accounts seem to
provide adequate explanations.
The participants reported that apparition of new faces in the mirror caused sensa-
tions of otherness when the new face appeared to be that of another, unknown person
or strange `other' looking at him/her from within or beyond the mirror. All fifty partic-
ipants experienced some form of this dissociative identity effect, at least for some
apparition of strange faces and often reported strong emotional responses in these
instances. For example, some observers felt that the `other' watched them with an
a situation that they found astonishing. Some participants saw
a malign expression on the `other' face and became anxious. Other participants felt
that the `other' was smiling or cheerful, and experienced positive emotions in response.
The apparition of deceased parents or of archetypal portraits produced feelings of silent
query. Apparition of monstrous beings produced fear or disturbance. Dynamic deforma-
tions of new faces (like pulsations or shrinking, smiling or grinding) produced an overall
sense of inquietude for things out of control.
Static face pictures and the distortions seen when they are peripherally viewed (Simas
2000) involve the binding of face traits. In contrast, self-perception in a mirror engages
a far broader set of processes as the image duplicates one's own face perfectly in space
and time, triggering an integration of perceptual, motor, and proprioceptive processes.
It is a dynamic process involving self-motion and autonomous self-exploratory control
of facial pose and expression (Rochat 2002). The construction of our self-identity
includes, among other processes, the capacity to recognise oneself in the mirror, a
competence acquired in childhood between 2 ^ 3 years of age (Zazzo 1981). Another
aspect of the strange-face illusion is the potential breakdown of self-identity that may
take place when gazing at a strange new face that has replaced one's own in the mirror
for a relatively long time.
Acknowledgment. I would like to greatly thank Patrick Cavanagh for his help in revision, advice,
and enthusiastic support.
Rochat P, 2002 ``Ego function of early imitation'', in The Imitative Mind Eds A N Meltzoff,W Prinz
(Cambridge: Cambr idge University Pres s) pp 85 ^ 97
Simas M L, 2000 ``The multiple-faces phenomenon: some investigative studies'' Perception 29
1393 ^ 1395
Thompson P, 1980 ``Margaret Thatcher: a new illusion'' Perception 9483 ^ 484
Wade N J, 2000 A Natural History of Vision (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
Zazzo R, 1981 ``Miroir, images, espaces'', in La Reconnaissance de son Image chez l'Enfant et l'Animal
Eds P Mounoud, A Vinter (Paris: Delachaux et Niestle
ß 2010 a Pion publication
1008 Last but not least