My phone dings as I pipette another sample into an Eppendorf tube. I set down the pipette and, with gloved hands, pick up my phone resting in a biohazard bag. It is a photo from father – a person and my dog, Lucy, sleeping in my bed in England. From a glance, I quickly text back asking him why my younger brother, Richie, is sleeping in my room. The following messages consisted of my father insisting the individual in the bed was me, during my stay over Winter Break, and I vehemently denied. Upon closer inspection and another cup of coffee, I realized the Richie alighted on my phone screen, sleeping in my bed was me.
My mistake made me curious. Although my brother and I had the same haircut those few months and looked like siblings, how did I misrecognize my self? We all have those moments when we scare ourselves in the mirror while it’s dark and we’re alone after a movie or those other times when someone photographs an angle of yourself which you’ve never seen before. As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by anything in the brain. As an aspiring art therapist, I’m more intrigued by how the brain develops a glitch- whether acute or chronic. The following description, and for that matter, the following blogs, will consist of scientific hypotheses and data of which relate to a neuroscience subject.
When understanding recognition, most research focuses on testing other species with the mark test. In a Mark Test, the subject is to be able to perceive a red mark on his/her face by seeing it in the mirror. To be self-aware one must understand the mirror is a reflection of him/herself, therefore, using it to remove the mark. When tested on babies between 18 to 24 months, they passed the Mark Test. However, children from less developed nations did not. This increased debate on whether the Mark Test is valid for testing self-awareness. Although the test has worked on elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins, it has also worked with pigeons as well (as a New Yorker, I detest pigeons and think they’re as self-aware as amoebas in a lake). With this information in mind, the Mark Test may not be as accurate at determining self-awareness as initially thought. Additionally, previous work by Chang et al., the mark test was shown to be a test of spatial reasoning of the individual to their reflection. Although the mirror can still show self-awareness, this answer does make it plausible for self-aware individuals to fail it.
Although developmental and behavioral psychology studied the Mark Test based on exterior responses, I wanted to find the internal motivations. In other words, I wanted to know the circuitry which allowed me to misrecognize myself and my reflection. Unfortunately, this is an area with a lot of missing information. As far as I could find, it was the fusiform face area which is responsible for facial recognition – thus, it should play some role in recognition. However, the following studies I will relate are based on face recognition via images using fMRI and subdural ERP measures – not Mark Test. Though it explains facial recognition in humans and primates, it does not tell how I know the reflection in the mirror is me.
Subdural ERP in macaques found that ‘face cells,’ face-specific cells in the fusiform face area, reacted at a much higher amplitude than when shown everyday objects, such as a banana. In fact, the face-cells’ reaction when viewing an everyday object was one-fifth less than viewing a face. Similarly, human fMRIs show activation of the superior temporal sulcus, the occipital face area, and the fusiform face area. It was noted that these areas were not activated during the presentation of everyday objects or body parts. In fact, the fusiform body area was activated only for the presentation of body parts. Although the tests were performed using fMRI and images, it does not explain recognizing oneself in a mirror. A study on children showed it took them a longer amount of time to recognize themselves in other media, such as films and photographs, than in a mirror. This finding is similar to results observed in Alzheimer’s patients, and the patient is unable to recognize him/herself in recent photographs but able to identify her/himself in a mirror. Similarly, schizophrenia patients fail at the Mark Test and misrecognize family/friends.
Overall, recognizing oneself is not as straightforward as expected. Variations in types of stimulus result in more variation in processing.
Although, there have been plenty of times where I don’t recognize myself in the mirror or a photograph, and I’m sure there will be more to come, every day I feel as if the me reflected isn’t there. As if who I’m seeing is not me. The real me looks different, maybe more naive? Or warped, like a photo cut from many angles, then pieced back together. I do not recognize myself as the days march along, and I avoid looking into it. Some days are so chaotic and beaten that I have to look at the consequences on my face – to see how the stress dragged my mouth into a frown and purpled my eyes. When I look into the reflective pool above my sink, I wonder who the hell am I? And
…Does anyone know who is looking back at them?