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My experience of the ‘strange face illusion’

I had read about this experiment by which staring at one’s own reflection in a mirror in a darkened room for some time, can induce vivid hallucinations. For purposes of research, I had to try it. I found my bathroom could meet the following requirements…

“… a quiet room dimly lit by a 25 W incandescent light. The lamp was placed on the floor behind the observer so that it was not visible either directly or in the mirror. A relatively large mirror (0.5 m60.5 m) was placed about 0.4 m in front of the observer. The luminance of the reflected face image within the mirror was about 0.2 cd mÿ2 and this level allowed detailed perception of fine face traits but attenuated colour perception…The task of the observer was to gaze at his/her reflected face within the mirror. Usually, after less than a minute, the observer began to perceive the strange-face illusion…”  Giovanni B Caputo, Perception, 2010, volume 39, pages 1007 – 1008 2010

Here is an account of my experience:

I am standing in the bathroom having closed the door to let almost no light in. There is a tiny amount of background light. Enough so I can see the outline of my head. I gradually adjust this to account for my eyes adapting to the low light.

The act of standing in a dark room staring at my own indistinct outline was in itself, an unusual and disconcerting act. After a few moments, the general discomfort and weirdness start to feel more natural, relaxing even. Becoming aware of the sound of my own breathing, and other more distant sounds, I felt I was entering a peaceful zone. A welcoming mental space of quiet that I would have been pleased to achieve even if nothing came of this experiment.

I focussed hard on the middle of the dark outline of my head for roughly 20 minutes. Slowly in the darkness my eyes continued to adapt, visual acuity began to increase, contrast became more vivid.  I see what I can only describe as ‘fuzzy noise’ in the darkness. After a while, I was sure I could detect faint outlines of my features, perhaps the whites of my eyes or glints from my teeth.

I was ready to give up but then it started to happen; Enlarged eye-like forms became clearly visible, like glassy bulbs. My mouth swollen, then widened, after more time it became full of large teeth too big for my face, spreading across my face until seeming taking over my face. A dynamic, kinetic evolving morphology of forms manifested themselves cascading and oscillating between states.

The moment I realised I was experiencing powerful hallucinations. I felt an instant quickening of my pulse the hairs on my neck standing up. For some time I enjoyed standing in the darkness regarding my new plastic monstrous face. I was afraid to move in case the illusion should shatter. Indeed this was the case, testing the limits of the hallucination I slowly turned my head to the side incrementally until at about 20 degrees the hallucination was suddenly gone as if it never happened.

Of course, I had high expectations for this experiment, I had read about people seeing the faces of animals, dead family members and monsters etc. I wonder how and if the experiment would work as well without such expectations/preparation?

Artist, educator, and researcher working between the fields of science and art.