Mirrors are powerful objects to humans. From John Dee’s scrying mirror, the metaphor of a black mirror popularized by the eponymous television show, and admonitions to cover a mirror under many circumstances, like the Jewish shiva or superstition.
Take Bloody Mary. There are many interpretations of this legend, but here’s what I learned as a kid. At midnight, stand in darkened room facing a mirror and chant “Bloody Mary” three times. She’ll appear in the reflection and bad things will happen. Fortunately, the worst that happened to me was scaring the shit out of my seven year old self. According to Wikipedia, Bloody Mary shows young girls if they will marry or if they will die. ((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Mary_%28folklore%29))
Opie and Tatem’s indispensable A Dictionary Of Superstitions expresses a measure of caution with looking glasses:
“In the chamber of death .. a dread is felt of some spiritual being imaging himself forth in the blank surface of the mirror .. I suspect that the true reason for shrouding the looking-glass .. is that given me in Warwickshire, that if you look into the mirror in the death-chamber, you will see the corpse looking over your shoulder.” ((A Dictionary of Superstitions, pp 252))
What are we seeing if nothing paranormal is afoot?
The obvious, and unexpected, answer is “ourselves”.
A recent study with the catchy name “Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing” by Giovanni Caputo, late of the University of Urbino, reveals people who stare at other people for extended periods begin to hallucinate. Chitra Ramaswamy at The Guardian notes, “90% hallucinated a deformed face, 75% saw a monster, 50% said their partner’s face morphed into their own and 15% saw a relative’s face.” ((Look into my eyes: can 10 minutes of staring make you hallucinate?, The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/science/shortcuts/2015/aug/24/look-eyes-staring-hallucinate-10-minutes))
Of interest are the latter two statistics, where faces became more familiar and familial. Ancient burial practices focused on imparting immortality upon the deceased. Neolithic plastered human skulls and ancient Egypt’s ushabti are physical representations of the deceased, reminding our forebears of the deceased’s wisdom and, likely, manifesting as visual and/or auditory hallucinations. These artifacts are part of the archaeological underpinnings of Julian Jaynes’s compellingly controversial theory of the bicameral mind. Before humans became properly conscious, our actions were guided by the voices of ancestors and gods originating from our brain’s right hemisphere. ((The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, pp 138-175))
Of interest is part of Jaynes’s description of consciousness in relation to memory. What people presume to recall is built from concepts, the platonic ideals of their office, the view out of the window, et al. These contribute to one’s mental sense of place and position in the world. The memories enabling one to see themselves in the third person. ((Ibid., pp 27-30))
Bringing us back to Bloody Mary and Giovanni Caputo.
People staring at themselves in the mirror are looking at a different self, the unconscious visible in the conscious body. After ten minutes of eye contact humans apprehend their other half, kept in check by the rational left hemisphere. These hallucinations communicate the subconscious’s instincts and reactions towards what’s before it.