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Strange-Face-in-the-Mirror Illusion


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 W 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 mT0.5 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(-2) 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(-2)). 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%). Language: en
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
Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion
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
enigmatic expression
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
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Despite the desire to delve deeper into hallucinations of all types, methodological obstacles have frustrated development of more rigorous quantitative experimental techniques, thereby hampering research progress. Here, we discuss these obstacles and, with reference to visual phenomena, argue that experimentally induced phenomena (e.g. hallucinations induced by flickering light and classical conditioning) can bring hallucinations within reach of more objective behavioural and neural measurement. Expanding the scope of hallucination research raises questions about which phenomena qualify as hallucinations, and how to identify phenomena suitable for use as laboratory models of hallucination. Due to the ambiguity inherent in current hallucination definitions, we suggest that the utility of phenomena for use as laboratory hallucination models should be represented on a continuous spectrum, where suitability varies with the degree to which external sensory information constrains conscious experience. We suggest that existing strategies that group pathological hallucinations into meaningful subtypes based on hallucination characteristics (including phenomenology, disorder and neural activity) can guide extrapolation from hallucination models to other hallucinatory phenomena. Using a spectrum of phenomena to guide scientific hallucination research should help unite the historically separate fields of psychophysics, cognitive neuroscience and clinical research to better understand and treat hallucinations, and inform models of consciousness. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Offline perception: voluntary and spontaneous perceptual experiences without matching external stimulation’.
... Given the opportunity, every one of us can experience transient reality distortions akin to those observed in psychosis. For instance, experimentally-induced sensory manipulation has been shown to generate both hallucinatory experiences and depersonalization phenomena in community samples (Caputo, 2010;Daniel & Mason, 2015;Tsakiris et al., 2010). Similarly, psychoactive drugs, such as amphetamines and LSD that create states of heightened sensory awareness, are known to produce transient psychotic symptoms (Ham et al., 2017). ...
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Contemporary research suggests that clinical psychosis is distally linked with schizotypal trait expression and more proximally with the breakdown of psychological processes pertaining to mentalizing. Although previous findings are suggestive of a relationship between trait-vulnerability for psychosis and mentalizing difficulties, they involve adult participants either within or beyond the critical period of illness onset. To date, little is known about the process of mentalizing during the critical developmental period of adolescence or its associations with schizotypal trait dimensions. In a series of empirical studies, the current thesis used novel experimental tasks and self-report measures in samples of typically-developing young people to: (1) examine the nature of associations linking schizotypal trait dimensions in adolescence to disruptions in mentalizing processes involving both the understanding of the self and others; (2) further understand the processes that sustain self-awareness during adolescence by examining the effects that age, cognitive effort and emotional valence may exert on self- and reality-monitoring performance; and (3) prospectively assess the nature of the relation between mentalizing processes sustaining self- (self-monitoring) and other-awareness (ToM) from adolescence to young adulthood. Overall, the findings of the current thesis provide novel data suggesting that the expression of schizotypal traits that impede interpersonal communication with others in adolescence are associated with difficulties in self and other understanding. Regarding the development of psychological processes sustaining self-awareness, current data suggest that although both self- and reality-monitoring abilities may be established in pre-adolescent development, reality-monitoring capacities for emotionally-charged material may undergo further elaboration from adolescence to young adulthood. In addition, the data of the current thesis suggest that increased cognitive effort and emotional valence during memory encoding may respectively lead to self- and reality-monitoring confusions. Finally, the findings of the current thesis suggest that different types of self-monitoring misattributions in adolescence can prospectively predict specific patterns of ToM dysfunction at 5-year follow-up.
... With the psychomanteum, the mirror is reclined toward the ceiling and does not reflect the observer or anything other than the black ceiling curtain (Moody, 1992;Moody & Perry, 1993). In contrast, mirror-gazing requires the observer to stare at his/her selfreflected mirror image and to maintain fixation on his/her eyes (or the nose) (Caputo, 2010a). ...
... Over the past decade, researchers have developed mirror-gazing and eye-to-eyegazing techniques to evoke and study AEs in experimentally controlled settings (Caputo, 2010a(Caputo, , 2019. In these studies, participants were selected among healthy naı¨ve individuals with no prior experience participating in a psychological study. ...
We critically reviewed the protocols, results, and potential implications from empirical studies ( n = 44) on mirror-gazing (including the “psychomanteum”) and eye-to-eye gazing, both in healthy individuals and clinical patients, including studies of hypnotic mirrored self-misidentification, mirror-gazing in body dysmorphic disorder and schizophrenia. We found these methods to be effective for eliciting altered states or anomalous experiences under controlled conditions and in non-clinical samples. Mirror-gazing and eye-to-eye-gazing produced anomalous experiences almost exclusively in the visual, bodily, and self-identity modalities, whereas psychomanteum experiences tended also to involve voices, smells, and bodily touches. The complexity, diversity, and specificity in contents across these anomalous experiences suggest mechanisms beyond perceptual distortions or illusions. We argue that mirror- and eye-gazing anomalous perceptions implicate different mechanisms that induce (i) Derealization (anomalous perceptions of external reality); (ii) Depersonalization (anomalous perceptions of the body), and (iii) Dissociated identity (anomalous perceptions of another identity in place of the self in mirror-gazing or in place of the other in eye-to-eye gazing). These interpretations suggest directions for future researches.
... Experimental studies of perception in patients with SPD have shown intact early visual perceptual processes and heightened mental imagery (Maróthi & Kéri, 2018), which probably contribute to perceptual aberration in SPD. One of the psychological mechanisms of unusual body experience (self-face perception abnormalities, loss of self-other boundaries) in schizophrenia spectrum disorders was demonstrated by using the Strange-Face-in-the Mirror illusion and Mirror-Gazing test (Bortolon et al., 2017;Caputo, 2010). e particular interest of modern studies of visual perceptual processes in schizophrenia spectrum disorders focuses on sensitivity to changes in target shape (for instance, target detection in symmetrical patterns and noise, congural superiority e ect, global-local divided attention task, performance on closedcontour tasks). ...
Background. The most significant features for clinical diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder (SPD) are cognitive-perceptual and disorganized symptoms. Experimental study of visual perceptual processes is important to elucidate the psychological mechanisms of cognitive-perceptual impairment in SPD. Objective. To research the performance of visual perceptual tasks in SPD. Design. Series I and II presented the subjects with visual perceptual tasks with different types of instructions (vague, verbal, or visual perceptual cues). The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-R) was also administered. The participants were 39 SPD patients, 36 obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) patients (F.21.8, F.60.5 in ICD-10, respectively), and 102 healthy controls. Results. SPD patients had a significantly lower number of correct answers in conditions of vague instruction and verbal cues in Series I of a visual-perceptual task in comparison with healthy subjects (р ≤ 0.01). With visual perceptual cues in Series II, patients with SPD had the same number of correct answers as controls, whereas OCPD patients had the same number of correct answers as controls with verbal cues in Series I. SPD patients had significantly lower scores in most verbal and nonverbal WAIS-R subtests in comparison with controls. SPD patients differed from OCPD patients in that they had lower scores in the “Information” (p ≤ 0.05) and “Comprehension” (p ≤ 0.05) subtests. Conclusion. With visual-perceptual cues, SPD patients were able to achieve normative results in the performance of visual-perceptual tasks, whereas patients with OCPD demonstrated lower productivity. In SPD patients, the basic impairments were associated with difficulties in inhibition of peculiar responses, stability of a subjective manner of performance and inability to revise it, low orientation to the model, and slipping into subjective associations with the stimuli.
... Steele et al., 2009).Rivera-Vélez et al. (2014) showed that high levels of correlated with impaired performance on memory tasks featuring verbal and visual indices in adults with PTSD. Experimental studies where derealization symptoms are enhanced using mirror-gazing paradigms(Caputo, 2010b(Caputo, , 2010a have demonstrated a reduction in verbal(Brewin, Ma, & Colson, 2013) or visual(Brewin & Mersaditabari, 2013) material encoding, suggesting a link between depersonalization-derealization and the encoding of new information. These approaches have allowed researchers to postulate a link between the episodic mode in memory and depersonalization symptoms or I-self functioning. ...
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Previous studies found that mirror-gazing at the subject’s reflected own face, under a low illumination level, produces acute dissociation. In the present study, a split-mirror was used, which divides the subject’s reflected face vertically into two half-faces, and dissociative states were compared to single-mirror gazing. Twelve healthy naïve individuals, who were sampled from students of an Art Academy, volunteered in a within-subject experiment. Dissociative states were measured through a 9-item self-report questionnaire on three scales: illusions of face deformation (derealization); illusions of body detachment (depersonalization); illusions of different self-identity (dissociated identity). Results showed that split-mirror gazing increased dissociation with respect to single-mirror gazing. Illusions of different self-identity, such as double-identity (i.e., left-identity versus right-identity) or double-personality, increased during split-mirror gazing with respect to single-mirror gazing, whereas illusions of face deformation and body detachment were unchanged. Findings support the distinction between detachment and compartmentalization, and may provide a tool for experimental investigation of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Finally, the students’ portraits illustrated illusions of self-identity in split-mirror gazing: left-identity (portrayed in the right side of drawings) displayed illusions of more negative personalities and/or emotions, while right-identity (portrayed in the left side) showed more positive features.
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We have noted several characteristics of the phenomenon. It seems to be easier to observe: (i) with highly familiar faces; (ii) when centred at the blind spot; (iii) with achromatic stimuli; (iv) with faces varying in size from 7 cm to about 14 cm; and (v) with medium-contrast levels. It often occurs in bursts, generally very fast, may encompass an emotional response, may involve a number of unrecognised faces, and generally tends to take at least 20 ^ 60 s to start for subjects observing it for the first time. Further, it seems to be more specific to human faces as compared to monkey faces. It can be triggered by small eye movements. The multiple-faces phenomenon appears to be related to adaptation to a very familiar face; as adaptation occurs, other face-related stored information is displayed by visual memory (overlaying the priming face). Such mechanism initially seems to act locally, as for eyes, mouth, nose, moustache, etc [more related to our category (iii)], and later, globally, as for whole faces, hair, beard, etc [more related to our category (iv)]. We have not found in the literature studies on face adaptation, however. We base our main hypothesis on physiological studies that identified cells responsive to faces, profile, and elements of a face in monkeys' inferotemporal cortex (for a review, see Desimone 1991). We suppose that mechanisms for detecting and identifying faces exist, and that these are primarily tuned in very early infancy to faces more frequently viewed (ie generally the mother's or first care-giver's face) and that later, as other faces are detected and stored, this mechanism builds upon previously stored most (similar?) seen faces, or opens new categorical face matrices. It is interesting to observe that male faces can be seen in female's photos and vice-versa. We are still gathering addi- tional and more controlled data to learn more about the occurrence and characteristics of this phenomenon. Language: en
Miroir, images, espaces'', in La Reconnaissance de son Image chez l'Enfant et l
  • R Zazzo
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¨) pp 77^110 ß 2010 a Pion publication