How Mirrors Mess With Our Brains (and why we should use our friends instead)

Have you ever thought about the ways in which what you perceive through your senses can be vastly different from another individual sharing the same space and time with you? We know this for sure with our taste buds; some people lap up the taste of chicken’s feet and goat’s brains and cow’s tongues, and others spray cheese from a can onto a biscuit and call it a meal. Some people want to muntah (vomit) just watching someone peel a banana, let alone putting it in their mouths. We know that some people used to love listening to talk-back radio and got pure joy from listening to Alan Jones spouting hate speech, while others listen to punk rock to relax while eating their chia puddings. How you feel when someone whispers in your ear or touches your back can change depending on whether it’s someone you love or some creep invading your space. Each of these sensations differs for all of us.

What strikes me most at the moment is our sense of sight. The ways in which we can be standing beside someone and staring at the same thing, but seeing something totally different.

Just as someone who grows up in the jungle can differentiate between a vast array of shades of green whereas another who grew up at the tip of the northern hemisphere can see shades of white in the snow, our eyes see what they are used to, or even what they expect to. There is evidence as well that the language we speak can also impact the colours we see; whether your language has only one for blue, or two words will impact your ability to see the different shades of this colour. I notice the ways in which people from different cultures see the same things differently whenever someone comments on the appearance of my daughters. If it is an Indonesian commenting they will tell me how bule (white) the kids look, and if it is an Australian they will usually tell me how much they look like their dad (who is Indonesian).

The reason that I am so interested in the ways that our sense perception can be so subjective, and the ways in which our reality is often not shared, is because I think of what happens when we see ourselves reflected in a mirror.

Have you ever been in a shop and nearly walked into someone and have gone to say sorry and then realised it was actually you in the mirror? It’s a disconcerting feeling when you don’t recognise yourself but in many ways it makes sense, as we don’t really know what we look like. We have mostly seen ourselves pulling certain faces or posing in a photo or in the mirror. We know for sure that what we see in the mirror isn’t what we look like in “reality”, and that we will never be able to see ourselves as others see us, as it is only a reflection. 

Some may believe that we can really see ourselves in some kind of honest and truthful way and that indeed “the mirror never lies”. They may celebrate what they see, or they may curse their reflection for showing them only the signs of ageing and stress, and feel sorry for those who have to stare at them all day. This may be worsened as we spend our time on video calls where our own face is staring back at us all day, more than ever before, and when we catch ourselves we might start to notice strange things about our faces, like how one eye is lazier than the other, or spend the entire call wondering how our hair got so grey, when we can do something about our bushy eyebrows, or whether it is time to seriously contemplate some botox. We are so talented that we can have a whole range of thoughts denigrating ourselves at the same time as nodding at our boss and engaging in a whole other conversation about new logos or ensuring that the work is done, and it only takes a microsecond of seeing yourself to start the whole train of thoughts off again.

Why is it that we are so cruel to ourselves when we catch a glimpse of our physical selves?

Just as our cultures and language can impact how we see ourselves, even how we imagine how we look, alongside the distorted view that a mirror allows us to see, we also need to think about other systems that impact how we judge our perceptions, including those that are designed to make us feel terrible about ourselves in order to function and gain enormous profits.

We know that a lot of research has been done by corporations on human psychology; they design foods that hit our pleasure point so we become addicted, they design a range of ads that build up our sense of anticipation so we watch that show or buy that product. They work to increase our natural feelings of fear, uncertainty or doubt, so that we feel that these things can be fixed by investing in what they are selling. After watching the Netflix documentary, the Social Dilemma, about the ways in which we have now become the products that the big social media giants are selling in order to gain profits, and using subtle ways to manipulate our thinking so that don’t realise that it is happening, it made me think more about the other systems that are using the knowledge about human psychology in order to make us feel a certain way. How do these systems alter our sense perception, and in particular, what we see in the mirror? 

What do my eyes see when I look in the mirror with all of these systems working alongside my human psychology to manipulate me? These systems enter into our brains and tell us how we should feel about ourselves, often without our consent. We don’t know if what we see comes from the male controlled media telling us what kind of woman is acceptable,and whether we get a passing grade. If it is the diet industry telling us that if  we just lost that weight our life would be transformed. The education industry telling us to trust authority and to be a good citizen. The cosmetics industry telling us that we just needed to buy that cream so that the lines on our faces disappear. The food industry telling us to just eat the low fat stuff because the last thing we ever, ever, ever, ever want to be in this world is fat. So many industries focus around the idea that fat is bad and if you happen to find any fat on your body, shame, shame shame.

All of these messages enter into our brains and start making roads from one end to the other with messages on repeat of “you are not good enough” and “erase yourself; shrink yourself to skin and bones and photoshop any line from your face that may reveal you spent a lot of time smiling”. These messages impact everything we see in the mirror because when we start from the premise of not being good enough, which is what these systems tell us, then all we look for and expect to see are those things that make us imperfect. 

So what are we supposed to do? How can we counteract these deeply held beliefs that impact the ways that we see ourselves, and thus the ways we feel that we can move about in the world? 

How can we see ourselves as we truly are? This is going to take work as you may be buried beneath layers and layers and layers of shit. 

The first step may just be self awareness. The knowledge that you don’t need to believe what you see and that powerful corporations are working against you to profit from your lack of self esteem.

A more useful way of using a reflection to gain self awareness is instead to see others as your mirror. When you look at your friend and just feel so in awe of them, you are often reflecting back something that you see in yourself, even if you don’t see it or recognise it as something you possess. It works the other way too in that if someone is annoying the shit out of us, it could be because they are projecting something back at us that we don’t like about ourselves.

What we need to remember is that our reality is created by what we choose to see. We can gain some control over our sense perception by focusing on that which empowers us. We can stop buying trashy magazines that tell a certain story about women, we can turn off notifications for Instagram, we can spend time with our girlfriends over a glass of whatever takes our fancy and when we catch ourselves thinking “damn this is fun” or “this chick just rocks my world”, remember that it is your reflection that you see in your friend. You are fun, you are radiant, you are kicking ass. If you catch yourself for a moment just start thinking “fuck I am awesome”, give yourself a boost, put on some bright red lipstick just for yourself and let those red lips be the thing that catches your eye mid meeting.

We have to try and take back some control of our own senses so that we can bust out of these systems profiting from our shrinking.

Howl at the moon, write self affirmations and stick them on the mirror, do some meditation to find some stillness in your mind, tell the systems to get fucked for a change and start to grow yourself into the kick ass force waiting to be released.


Published by lostinthealleywayscom

I am a feminist, mother of two, Australian, married to an Indonesian, lover of all things Jakarta (well apart from the pollution and rubbish and corruption and...well you get the picture). I want to share my stories of exploring Jakarta and raising my two daughters in the big city.

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