The Mirror Test (and the Problem with Reflections)
I assume you’d pass the Mirror Test. It’s a test you don’t need to study for, don’t worry. The whole point of the test is to determine whether you can recognise yourself in the mirror.
Does that sound like something you can handle? Are you sure?
This test was invented in and around the 1970’s and requires putting a mark on an animal’s body. If the animals can recognise the mark, it is believed to recognise itself and normally tries to scratch it off.
Animals that can handle the Mirror Test
Elephants, magpies, apes, dolphins, some types of whales to name a few, are apparently able to pass the test.
So if you can recognise yourself in the mirror, congratulations! You are in esteemed company. You are at least as intelligent as a magpie.
Why is this good?
What’s good about being able to pass the Mirror Test? What’s good about being able to recognise ourselves in a reflection?
Because in some cases, might we be better off if we did not recognise ourselves? When we think about eating disorders for instance, our problems with body image, our dissatisfaction with ourselves. If we could only not recognise ourselves, we would not need to be so dissatisfied with ourselves.
When will your reflection show who YOU are inside?
The lyrics of Reflection, from Disney’s classic Mulan paint quite the sorrowful, self-conflicted portrait:
“Who is that girl I see
Staring straight, back at me
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know
Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am
Though I’ve tried”
The Mirror Test suggests animals can recognise their reflection. But can they really see themselves the way us humans can? Our self-recognition is far more complex than seeing a physical frame, a body.
The Reflection Problem
We have enough self-awareness as people that we can feel insecure. You might not be an active and adventurous young girl who wants to be a warrior in Imperial China, but you might emphasise with the struggle of being who others expect you to be.
We are aware of what others think of us. Now I’m not David Attenborough, but I do know this much. Elephants don’t have careers, magpies don’t have cross-cultural clashes, and there’s not too much social pressure acting on dolphins.
This reflection problem is that you are aware of what others think of you, you don’t have the luxury of ignorance.
You start as a child, then it changes
My younger brother used to pee wherever he pleased. In the shopping centre outside of the carpark, or in plain view in the beach, ankle-deep with confused and offended onlookers all around him.
He has since kicked this socially unacceptable habit. When we are children we lack most of the self-conscious part of self-awareness, we have no filter. But as we become more aware of the world around us in mid-childhood, insecurity is given permission to creep in.
Rediscover the child by going deeper.
How will you rediscover the courage to pee in public like my brother once did? To be so sure of yourself that you can stick out from what everyone expects of you… or rather, what you think they expect of you.
By the time you’re reading this, you’ve already been shaped by thousands of doors in your life.
There’s a reason why the number of Korean female golfers soared after one Se-ri Pak defied all odds to win the US Open in 1998.
It’s the same reason a new generation of Russian female tennis players took rise after Anna Kournikova burst onto the scene in the late 1990’s. All it takes is for one kid somewhere to look up to someone and think “If they can, then I can do it too”.
These are the internal doors that open up, a journey that lead you to think that you can be something other than the person everyone is telling you to be.
Self-awareness is the master of all abilities. My, isn’t that worth repeating. Self-awareness is the master of all abilities.
There’s only one way Hua Mulan, Se-ri Pak, Kournikova and other counter-cultural figures can stand up to defy what is expected by the masses. When the culture keeps telling them to be this they keep reflecting inside and listen to themselves. The voice inside says “no, I am going to be that”.
Look deep into the mirror, and reflect.
Self-awareness is the master of all abilities. But you cannot develop self-awareness without reflecting, without going deeper into the reflection.
Right now, you are somewhere between the animals that pass the Mirror Test and the most self-confident figures who defy global expectations.
So ask yourself… which direction are you going to head?
Hint: you can’t become an elephant or magpie.
So, to overcome the painful tipping point where self-awareness becomes self-consciousness, insecurity and anxiety, instead of turning back and leaning into ignorance and denial, what will you lose by going deeper instead?