All the Universe is Full of the Lives of Perfect Creatures

In this interactive mirror, viewer’s movement and expressions are mimicked by an animal head which is overlaid on the viewer’s reflection. The resulting effect invites inquiry into issues of self-awareness, empathy and non-verbal communication.

A different animal appears every time a person walks in front of the mirror.
The animal not only mimics the viewer’s facial features, but also occasionally makes its own, uniquely animal expressions. The viewer feels compelled to in turn enact such lip licking and snarling, fully inhabiting the role; following while being followed.

This project explores a mirror as an amalgamation of the self and the other, inviting inquiry into how we determine the boundary between the two. The project is also inspired a neural mechanism called ‘mirror neurons’ which explains how we get an experiential insight of other minds. This mechanism of neural simulation of other’s behavior and physical expressions has been implicated in theory of mind concepts such as emotional recognition or contagion, and in cooperative behavior or emotions such as empathy and compassion. It suggests that we know how someone feels by mapping his or her facial expressions directly onto the respective areas in our own brain. This unconscious simulation is more underlying but akin to the unconscious mimicry that is pervasive and automatic in our communication with each other.

The instinctual engagement that the installation elicits reminds us also that we share with other animals a great heritage which is that of the unconscious mind.

The images above show how the person looking in the mirror sees the animal image: as overlaid on their own reflection. For others, seeing this interaction from a different perspective, the animal head is offset, as in the video below. (The pictures were taken with the animal being offset for the viewer).

Made using
FaceTracker library from Jason Saragih (web.mac.com/jsaragih/FaceTracker/FaceTracker.html),
ofxFaceTracker addon by Kyle McDonald (github.com/kylemcdonald/ofxFaceTracker)
openFrameworks (openframeworks.cc/)
Unity3d (unity3d.com/)
Blender3d (blender.org/)

Background

This project is inspired by the neural mechanism called ‘mirror neurons’ which explains how we get an experiential insight of other minds. Mirror neurons activate when we watch someone perform an action, mirroring it, as if we were performing the same action. This neural simulation has been implicated in theory of mind concepts such as emotional recognition or contagion, and in cooperative behavior or emotions such as empathy and compassion. Emotional contagion is based on interpreting the emotional state of another being expressed through physical features, and discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we map the facial features of another being directly onto the respective areas in our own brain. This mechanism might have had its evolutionary roots not only in human-to-human communication, but also in human – animal relations. Survival in the role of a predator or pray depends on successful inserting of oneself into the mind of the hunter or the hunted, even to the point of mimicking its behavior and identifying with it. Today studies have shown that unconscious imitation and mimicry are pervasive and automatic: they are a bridge to inhabiting the other’s mind, to communication and understanding.

The intuitive instinctual engagement that the installation elicits reminds us that we are all animals, and even though, as Leonard Mlodinow notes in his book Subliminal, humans have this small amount of consciousness, floating like the tip of the iceberg above the sea of the unconscious, we share with other animals a great heritage which is that of the unconscious mind that allows us to move around in the world and survive.

The power of the meaning conveyed with such language-less, bodily communication is evident in our spoken language. Nicola Savarese in A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology discusses the facial gestures that we share with animals. ‘The expression ‘to show one’s teeth’ is so rich in meaning that it has passed from physiology to proverb’, he writes and notes how we often intentionally ‘perform’ these facial gestures in order to communicate and thus turn our face into a mask. Masks and performance is our way of using this mechanism as a language, manipulating and constructing meanings. Theater and rituals are an exaggerated and intentionally performed version of the underlying simulation we perform unconsciously all the time. This is especially apparent in the use of masks, in particular animal masks: communicating pure emotion. The neural mirroring mechanism suggests that the rituals which involve seeing oneself as an animal might be far more than simply a symbolic performance — they might be closer to an embodied simulation of other creatures.

‘In a sense, mirrors are the best ‘virtual reality’ system that we can build,’ said Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool. To scientists, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of mirrors make them powerful tools for exploring questions about perception and cognition, such as exploring how we determine what is self and what is other. My project is in part inspired by experiments where distinguishing between your own and somebody else’s face in the mirror becomes difficult, or where that boundary can disappear completely. Coherent view of reality, like a coherent image of our vision that is presented to our conscious mind, is constructed by our unconscious processes filling in the gaps between clues we get from sensory or social input. Looking into these gaps and at the bridges we construct over them is part of my ongoing interest in interactive design.

http://psychology.emory.edu/cognition/rochat/Five%20levels%20.pdf
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/22/science/22angi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-mishaps/201008/blurring-the-self-other-boundary-the-rubber-hand-illusion-and-mirror-fail
http://pijet.com/2009/03/19/mirror-a-psychological-door-to-the-otherness-of-self/

Here’s a short documentation from Science Gallery installation in the show ILLUSION: