Winter 2009–2010

The Friend in the Mirror

The phantom limbs of relationships past

Mats Bigert

One day, you suddenly find yourself alone. The person you are closest to—the love of your life or your best friend—is gone, taken over by an alien. The person is there physically, you can see him or her, but the emotional connection between you is broken. The mental map you’ve so meticulously drawn of that person has been reconfigured and the emotional GPS that has guided you for so long no longer functions. Where did the person go?

The sensation of falling out of love or having a close friendship fade is not unlike the clinical condition known as Capgras Syndrome. Usually appearing in the aftermath of a brain injury, it presents in the patient as an inability to connect the visual appearance of a person with the emotional landscape previously associated with that person. Familiar faces no longer evoke the feelings they used to, and patients often report that their loved ones have been “replaced by impostors.” Scientists hypothesize that there has been a neurological disruption between the area in the temporal cortex that recognizes faces, and the limbic system, which is the seat of affects and emotions. And since the limbic system is closely linked to the process of creating episodic memories, the history you have with your loved one is altered—as is your own identity, formulated in part by the constant mirroring of the actions and emotions of those closest to you.

In the early 1990s, neurologists researching monkeys accidentally identified what they came to call mirror neurons, whose function is to fire when we need to replicate the behavior or actions of another person. When we see a person laugh or cry, we cannot help but mirror that emotional feeling; we all know how the mood of a group can be dominated by a single person in high spirits or in emotional distress. We constantly use our mirror neurons to correlate our behavior with other people’s: they are the fundamental basis of empathy.

There is therefore a literal basis for the description of two close friends as being in sync. The two “soul mates” are actually two brains whose mirror neurons are oscillating at the same speed. A kind of “odd sympathy” occurs between the friends, similar to the unexpected synchronization the seventeenth-century scientist Huygens observed between two pendulum clocks in his home. And over time, the intertwined personae merge into a single entity. A severing of such emotional connections, therefore, can never be total. Instead, it leaves behind a traumatic void akin to the phantom limb phenomenon, where a missing body part continues to cause pain in the patient long after the injury.

In his groundbreaking research on phantom limbs, the neurologist V. S. Ramachandran has used a simple mirror trick to relieve the pain of a patient who felt his missing hand to be permanently clenched into a fist. Ramachandran’s theory is that at the moment when the patient’s limb was injured, the brain stored a painful memory as a psychosomatic image of that accident. Since the mind fixed on the image of the limb at the moment of trauma (in this case a clenched fist), the brain registered it as still in pain. What Ramachandran did was to place the patient in a box with an angled mirror that would reflect the working limb, creating the illusion that the patient now had two functioning limbs. Miraculously, as the patient moved the working limb so it appeared that both arms were in motion, he had a sensation that the clenched fist was released from its cramped agony. The phantom limb dissolved into thin air.

Could mirrors be used not just to mitigate the pain of phantom limbs but also to alleviate the sorrow over lost friends or lovers who continue to haunt us? Have their faces been permanently etched into our brain? Or would it be possible to aim our hundred billion mirror neurons at the painful memory and use them, like the mirror array of Archimedes’ fabled heat ray, to burn it away? Ramachandran’s mirrors may not provide a solution, but the realm of magic offers one potential alternative. Instructions follow.

How to Erase a Former Friend
Find a location with a blank, white wall in front of you and another to your right. Place a chair with its back against the wall that is in front of you. Have your “friend” sit in that chair. Place your chair in front of the other one, and sit down. Once you and the other person are facing each other, hold the mirror in your left hand. Bring it up to your face against the right side of your nose, with the reflective side facing to the right. Turn the mirror at an angle so that when you look straight ahead, your right eye sees only the white wall beside you. Your left eye should still be able to see the other person.

Hold your right hand up so that you can see its reflection in the mirror with your right eye. Look straight ahead with both eyes, and move your right hand in front of the white wall to your right as if you were using a chalk eraser to wipe a blackboard clean. As your hand moves, your ex-friend’s face should vanish.

Why does this occur? Our eyes see from slightly different angles, and your brain has the task of taking the two images and combining them into one. Usually, the images are very similar, but here they are very different. The choice for your brain is easy. A person’s face commands more attention than a blank wall. At this point, your brain is focusing on the image of the person and ignoring the white wall. When you start to move your right hand, your brain, which is very sensitive to movement, quickly focuses on the moving hand. Since your brain is used to combining the images from both eyes into one, it keeps the interesting part of each. Where there has not been any movement, your brain keeps seeing a face. In the places where your hand has moved, it switches and uses the image of your hand and the wall over which you are waving it. This gives the illusion of erasing your former friend’s face. For some people, certain parts of the face will linger, even after you have erased all the rest. The mouth and eyes are the parts that most often remain.

Mats Bigert is an editor-at-large of Cabinet and one half of the Swedish artist duo Bigert & Bergström.

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