Self-Recognition and Mirrors

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?


Twelfth Night

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 II

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.

Animals which can recognise themselves in a mirror include… chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, some dolphins, killer whales, elephants, magpies, and humans once they reach the age of two or a bit younger. Other animals have done quite well, some of them responding nicely to practice.
It is hard to imagine a world without glass or polished metal – hard also to imagine a world in which humans could not or would not routinely see reflections of their images as they proceeded through the world. Water is, I suppose, the surface in which reflection would have happened, so there would still have been opportunities.
See Rayna Kalas, Frame, Glass, Verse: The Technology of Poetic Invention in the English Renaissance (Cornell University Press, 2007). From Venice and elsewhere glass mirrors (coated with tin-mercury amalgam) were imported and provided much better images than older metal mirrors.
The echo of Marlowe here is interesting. Dr Faustus conjures up a spirit in the form of Helen of Troy, and marvels, ‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’. He is trying to feel some sort of satisfying recognition of the real Helen of Troy. The empty echo of Richard’s question reverberates in literary tradition as well as in the fictional situation. The text looks in a kind of mirror, and finds Marlowe’s play looking back.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Self-Recognition and Mirrors

  1. Sean Geddes

    The question of self seems to be an area that literature can treat of in an especially effective way, perhaps for the reason that a ‘self’ is not really a ‘thing’ to be looked at and studied like a plant or a rock, but is more a felt sense in the first person. (The self as a ‘felt sense of ourselves’; this is of course wholly tautologous, but it may that the tautology shows why this can be a slippery question. It would seem to question the identity of the self with the first person, as would the process of ‘self-reflection’.) Literature, and especially lyric poetry, looks intensely at this area that is so hard to pin down. It is funny to compare how often we use the personal pronoun in every day life, with the variety of characterizations that are so often conjured up when we are asked what exactly a ‘self,’ or what ‘oneself,’ actually is. Saying ‘I am such-and-such’ a thing usually involves saying ‘I am like such-and-such a thing.’ And then we are of course in the domain of literature, and metaphor is not far off.

    In terms of everyday reference and language, there seems to be an unchanging unity to the self, but a closer look (i.e. Richard II) suggests change and multiplicity as the characteristic elements. In addition to showing by contrast how Gallup et al. are working with a stable idea of self – with need, given their parameters – it seems to me that Shakespeare also gives insight into the felt workings of an unstable one. It may be interesting in the light of a dialogue with cognitive science to note those of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seem to be, at least in a certain sense, experimental or exploratory. As you note above, the reflection of Richard’s face in the mirror ‘seems like a lie’ to him, and does not tally with his experience. In sonnet 44, the questionable nature of a single, stable self also spurs contemplation:

    If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, 

    Injurious distance should not stop my way; 

    For then, despite of space, I would be brought
    From limits far remote, where thou dost stay. 

    No matter then although my foot did stand 

    Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,

    For nimble thought can jump both sea and land 

    As soon as think the place where he would be. 

    But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought, 

    To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,

    But that, so much of earth and water wrought, 

    I must attend time’s leisure with my moan, 

    Receiving naught by elements so slow 

    But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe. 

    Here, there is a strong identification of the self with the body, ‘earth and water’. There is also a sense of existential absence, ‘thought kills me that I am not thought’ – for in the next sonnet we get:

    My life, being made of four, with two alone
    Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy,
    Until life’s composition be recurèd (45.7-9)

    So the self is felt as composed of different things. The speaker really does feel that thought is part of him – composition here can be (and given the context, probably is) a ‘combination of personal qualities that make any one what he is’ (OED 16b) – and so he feels alienated from himself in a painful way: ‘thought kills me that I am not thought’. But overall, sonnet 44 seems to show the self as a kind of feedback loop, a process where A (identification, or its lack, with body or thought) produces B (i.e. the felt sense of time as burden, ‘attend time’s leisure with my moan’, and of space as huge, ‘injurious distance’. The increase of felt distance encompassing produces the burden of felt time, which, to note in passing, seems to link SCTs (the spacial construals of time of an earlier blog), perhaps, with construals of self.) All this then produces C (the sorrowful self, divided and apart), which then comes back and reifies A (intensified awareness of being of ‘earth and water wrought’: the ‘badges of either’s woe’.). And so on.

    The self here is given as a kind of process with multiple layers, and it makes for marvelous poetry. ‘To leap large lengths of miles’, for example, gives in the three alliterating ‘l’ words also a progressive lengthening of vowel, suggesting so well the kind of trifles fantasy (‘if only my identity with thought never wavered, and I could go with it’) makes of reality. The alliteration of ‘l’ keeps a skipping feel despite the increasing length of time it takes to pronounce each word – briefly mimicking, even mocking, the reality of the actual distance for the speaker.

    It also makes for very rich suggestion. I don’t know how this kind of ‘process of self’ could be looked at from an experimental point of view – perhaps there is some way – but it certainly provokes some interesting ways to approach any thinking about the self.

    1. Raphael Lyne Post author

      Thanks, Sean, for this excellent comment. By turning to the Sonnets you’ve anticipated a follow-up post I am planning. There are an array of fascinating mirrors there, which expand the ‘feedback loop’ of selfhood that you describe (‘tautology’… ‘self-reflection’… I will add Narcissus to the mix). I like the way that you’ve drawn out the detailed ways in which a poem might explore the complexity of what a self might be. Like me, I think, implicitly at least, you wonder how such complexity might be made useful to a scientist working on related topics. These views of ‘self’, as an unfathomable process, as a commonly-understood thing that can be taken for granted, might end up seeming complementary, a compact rationale for having both the Sciences and the Humanities, a helpful indication of limitations on both sides. However, this may just be too slackly consilient. It might be better for each side to hold the other to account for any signs of underprocessed thinking.


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