Gordon G. Gallup Jr, Steven M. Platek, and Kristina N. Spaulding, ‘The Nature Of Visual Self-Recognition Revisited’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18 (2014), 57-8.
Thomas Suddendorf and David L. Butler, ‘Response to Gallup et al.: Are Rich Interpretations Of Visual Recognition A Bit Too Rich?’, Trends of Cognitive Sciences, 18 (2014), 58-9.
These are two interventions in an ongoing discussion (Gallup et al. are responding to an earlier Trends piece by Suddendorf and Butler). The latest ‘Response’ urges caution in developing too ‘rich’ a theory of ‘self-recognition’ (i.e., knowing that it’s you in the mirror). This is prompted by Gallup et al. arguing that self-recognition is linked to various aspects of social cognition (especially the crucial ability to attribute mental states to others).
They argue that in the experimental data ‘deficits and decays in self-recognition (e.g. autism) covary with mental state attribution deficits’. They develop an intriguing picture of schizophrenia, of which sufferers (it appears) are able to adjust distorting mirrors to create undistorted images of objects, but unable to do the same when the images are of themselves. It was interesting, though perhaps unsurprising, to read that self-awareness is ‘multi-modal’: hearing or seeing your name facilitates visual self-recognition. It was also interesting to read that it has been proposed that the evolution of self-conception ‘is an adaptation to the risk of falling in ’.
For Gallup et al., the important thing is the interconnection of self-recognition and the ability to understand others. They don’t think the ‘adaptive value’ is really the point, not least because ‘mirrors were rare in the ’. This made me think about Shakespeare, partly because of some very vivid moments of self-recognition (or rather, failures of self-recognition and problems of self-contemplation), and partly because, not least thanks to the work of , I know that mirror technology had taken great leaps in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s interest in self-recognition had an emerging technological correlative; what do his representations of this relationship seem to know about it?
Viola thinks her brother is dead. She has dressed as a young man to help her make her way through a strange land, and as a result resembles her brother enough that his friend Antonio mixes them up, and enough that when she looks in the mirror, he appears there:
He named Sebastian: I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate: O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.
I take this to be describing, within the fiction, a genuine response to the mirror-image rather than a witty play on the idea of resemblance. In this scenario Viola’s need to believe in her brother being alive – a delusion of grief so far as she knows – overpowers self-recognition, and she sees someone else in the glass. The need to know another, an extension of the capacity to know another discussed by Gallup et al., is linked to the mirror moment. Shakespeare vividly depicts the ‘covariance’ of knowing oneself and knowing another.
Richard, once deposed, finds that recognising oneself is not a single thing. His multiple selves, man and King, no longer hold together, despite the mirror still showing a face that used to unite them:
Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me!
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
[Dashes the glass against the ground]
For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.
The reflection seems like a lie, because despite all his pain the face is unchanged. Shakespeare seems to be showing that ‘self-recognition’ as imagined by Gallup et al. is working with a basic and stable idea of ‘self’. Richard realises that knowing himself in the mirror isn’t helping him know himself as an other.
Of course, scientific experiments have to limit the number of factors they engage with in order to test precise and demarcated theories. Merging knowing oneself and knowing an other, as these plays do, would compromise the clarity of the things being tested. Richard and Viola – the former perhaps more grimly and recognisably, the latter more uncannily – both have claims to psychological truthfulness.