Posted in Science & Nature, Special Long Essays


Mirrors are perhaps one of the most useful yet underrated inventions that we use every day. From shaving in the morning to fixing make-up during lunch, the modern man or woman will use a mirror (or some other reflective surface) at least once a day. Mirrors show us an accurate reflection of the world that we cannot see. We can only look forwards and need a mirror to reflect light going the opposite way to see behind us or – more importantly – ourselves. To do this, a mirror must directly reflect every photon (particles that make up light) at exactly the right angle so the image is not distorted. If the mirror is not completely flat or perfectly polished, light will not be reflected at the exact angle and we will see a distorted image – much like looking into a mirror at the circus. Therefore, one could say that a perfectly flat, clean mirror is absolutely honest, as it will reflect exactly as it sees.

However, this statement is not entirely true as what you see in the mirror is a mirror image of reality. This may seem trivial, but it has significant consequences. This is most obvious when you hold a book up to a mirror. Without training, it is very difficult to read something that is mirrored. This is why Leonardo da Vinci wrote his notes in mirror image. This phenomenon of something becoming completely different is also seen in chemistry. Because of the way molecules are arranged, it is possible to have a property called chirality – where two molecules with the same elemental composition are built in the mirror image of one another. Essentially, it is as if the molecule can be either left- or right-handed. It turns out that even if the composition is the same, two molecules of different chirality (called enantiomers) can act completely differently. This effect may be as simple as changing the way a liquid polarises light to making a drug completely inert or even toxic. For example, the amino acid carvone that gives the spearmint taste only tastes like spearmint if it is L-carvone (“left-handed”), whereas D-carvone (“right-handed”) is tasteless despite having the same molecular formula.


Since the topic of chirality is rather technical and hard to understand, let us move on to the field of literature. One of the best examples of how mirrors can completely change something is seen in Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Lewis Carroll understood the significance of mirror images in chemistry and wrote this novel to portray how quirky and strange a “mirror world” may be. Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to the famous book Alice in Wonderland and describes a world that is the mirror image of Wonderland. Carroll cleverly wrote the first book so that it would be the opposite of the first book. The first book starts outdoors, is set in the summer, uses changes in size as a plot device and focuses on the theme of trump cards. The second book starts indoors, is set in the winter, uses changes in direction as a plot device and draws on the theme of chess. There are even characters such as Hatta and Haigha who are the mirror images of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from the previous book. Although they are very similar, they are just not the same and hence Alice does not recognise them. Perhaps the line that best shows Carroll’s understanding of the dangers of mirror worlds is this: “Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink”.

The field of psychology is also heavily interested in mirrors. It is a well-known fact that our brains recognise the purpose of mirrors. If you put a mirror in front of someone, you know that the person will examine themselves, groom themselves or simply make funny poses. A simple experiment shows how used to mirrors we are. If you angle two mirrors at right angles and fit a transparent sheet of glass in front of the two to make a prism shape, the image you see through the glass is a reflection that is not mirrored. Because it is not mirrored, you can hold up a book to it and still read it fine. This is known as a non-reflecting mirror. An interesting experiment shows that if you make people use this kind of mirror, they become incredibly confused as they are too used to using a mirror image to see themselves. Even though the reflection they see is a “truer” image, because their brain automatically flips the mirrored image, they become uncoordinated and keep moving their hands in the opposite direction.

As mentioned at the start, mirrors are a human invention. Although reflection occurs in nature, such as on a clear surface of water, animals generally are incapable of using mirrors. This is such a universal fact that animal psychologists use a mirror test to determine whether a specie of animal is self-aware or not. The test is done by showing an animal a mirror. Most animals will see their reflection and automatically believe that it is another animal, as they are incapable of thinking that it is a reflection of themselves. Hence, they will try to threaten, attack or flee from the image they see. But if you show a higher-order animal such as an ape or dolphin a mirror, they will start to groom themselves as they realize that the mirror is simply showing themselves.


This is what sets us apart from animals. Not only are we capable of recognizing ourselves in a mirror, but we have the ability to go one step further and reflect on ourselves using the mirror of our minds. Some people may take a look at the person in this mirror and be content with who they are. But some will gaze into the mirror and, much like the animals in the mirror test experiments, see a completely different person they do not recognise. This may cause disappointment, frustration or even disgust as we realize that we are not who we think we are or aspire to be. Then again, sometimes you will gaze into the mirror and see a person that has strengths such as courage – a person you could be if you realized your true potential. The most frightening realisation would be to discover that there is no one in the mirror.

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Lastly, we could consider the mirror of behaviour. Goethe said that “behaviour is a mirror in which everyone displays his own image”. The corollary to this is that human beings read behaviour to try and interpret another person’s character. One can use this to greatly improve the relationship and connection with another person. Mirroring is the act of subtly copying the other person’s behaviour to build rapport – where an empathic bridge is constructed between two people. Rapport is particularly useful in jobs that involve earning the trust of strangers in a short time, such as in healthcare or business. By matching the other person’s body language, such as posture or actions like taking a sip of water, the other person will open up more easily to you. The same applies to verbal and emotional mirroring where you subtly reuse the words the other person spoke and reflect their emotions such as excitement. Obviously, one must be subtle with mirroring as a direct imitation will appear mocking and strange. If you are able to subtly copy their behaviour, the other person’s subconscious mind will be tricked into thinking that you are similar in character and trust you more. This skill is extremely useful in improving your interpersonal and social skills.

A mirror is a paradoxical object that is absolutely honest yet relatively deceitful. Reflections in the mirror are true yet completely different. If you take a peek into the mirror of your mind, perhaps you will see the person you think you are now or the person you could be in a mirror world. If you are happy with what you see, then cherish that and be proud of who you are. Otherwise, you can always do what Alice did and jump through the looking-glass to find an alternate you – the best you that you can be.


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