On Reflection: the Art and Neuroscience of Mirrors

Otavio Schipper on reflection


Two linked exhibitions in Berlin – Mirror Images in Art and Medicine and Smoking Mirror – begin where Narcissus left off. The hero of Greek mythology wasted away gazing transfixed at his own beauty reflected on the surface of a dark pool. He left his name both to the narcissus (daffodil) that sprang up on the banks where he died, and to psychology.

The desire to see one’s own reflection more conveniently than kneeling at the waters’ edge on a sunny day appears universal. Most of the world’s major cultures invented their own types of portable mirror over the millennia. The earliest so far found, in Anatolia, were made from polished obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass, and date back 8,000 years. Later came mirrors made from polished metal, and around the first century AD, metal-coated glass.

Examples of mirror-based objects – like the extraordinary non-reversing mirror invented by US mathematician Andrew Hicks in 2010 – are on display in Mirror Images at the Museum of Medical History at the Charité. But at its most provoking, the exhibition explores the psychological and neuroscientific power of reflections. It departs from the relatively simplistic notion of narcissism – an unhealthy concern with one’s self – to examine deeper and altogether more fascinating concepts of ‘self’.  How do we perceive the boundary between the outer limits of our body and the environment in which our bodies move? Is our perception of our individual ‘self’ constant or manipulable?

These concepts have both medical and philosophical significance. In the past half-century, artists have been doing their own explorations of what self means, exploiting video technology to capture ‘reflections’ more permanently than mirrors can. Mirror Images shows, as few similar ventures have been able to do, how art and science really do sometimes converge on important questions in a meaningful way.


The exhibition showcases several mirror-containing instruments that transformed medicine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among them is an exquisite 1851 ophthalmoscope in its original wood, velvet and silk case. Invented by pioneering physicist and physiologist Herrmann von Helmholtz, the instrument was the first to allow light to be shone directly into any part of the body that is sealed from the environment by a membrane, and it gave physicians their first view inside a functioning eye. This was long before photography became common, so physicians had to draw what they saw there. A sample watercolour alongside the ophthalmoscope shows how impressive their artistic skills could be.

The exhibition also showcases the healing potential of reflections. A series of photographs on display, taken of herself in different locations during paralysing panic attacks, helped artist Sabina Grasso to cure her psychological disorder. She says the cure resulted from being able to contemplate from a distance the images of her own captured body.

A version of neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran’s famous mirror box is available for visitors to test its illusory powers on their own bodies. Ramachandran  developed the deceptively simple device in the 1990s to help amputees who feel phantom pain from their missing limb. The pain may occur because the brain responds as if the limb were not missing, but in spasm. The patient places his or her remaining limb in front of a vertical mirror so that its reflection appears as if it could be the missing limb. The brain registers the spasm-free movements and, in some cases, stops sending the painful signals.


A different, even more startling, type of body illusion is presented by Croatian artist Dalibor Martinis in a video interview between two of his ‘selves’, separated by more than three decades. In 1978, at 31, he video-recorded a series of questions, in English, addressed to his future self. The mature Martinis responds in 2010 in a Croatian television show. He finds his younger self “a bit puffed up”, and comments “if we are at all the same person, it is neither you nor I”.

Across town, a darkened exhibition room at the Schering Foundation hosts the mesmerizing installation Smoking Mirror. It was created by two Brazilian artists: one, Otavio Schipper, has a degree in physics; the other, jazz musician Sergio Krakowski, a PhD in mathematics.

The artwork comprises three reflecting objects suspended from the ceiling, each inspired by the working tools of the astronomer-astrologer mathematician John Dee, advisor to the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I. One is a large obsidian mirror, another a glass sphere filled with water, and the third, a circular, concave surface coated with gold. (The originals are held in the British Museum.) Sound waves emitted from speakers on opposite walls during a 26-minute sound composition by Krakowski cause the objects to turn slowly, shifting their mutual reflections as ever-changing lighting plays on their surfaces.

And the mesmeric sounds? The brain-wave frequencies recorded during different states of consciousness (awake, sleeping, dreaming); frequencies of resonances in the Earth’s atmosphere; spoken sequences of numbers recorded from the mysterious shortwave numbers radio stations in the airways whose purposes may be espionage. The installation keeps just this side of mysticism, but its draw is like that of Narcissus to his pool. The sensory domination does, as intended, channel the minds of visitors, turning thoughts inwards.

Alison Abbott is Nature’s senior European correspondent.

Mirror Images runs at the Museum of Medical History at the Charité, Berlin, Germany, until 3 April 2016. Smoking Mirror runs at the Schering Foundation, Berlin, Germany, until 23 January 2016.


by Barbara Kiser

Posted on behalf of Alison Abbott

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