Good morning and welcome to Summit Up, the world’s only daily column wondering what it was like to live in a world without mirrors.
We’ve observed that our cat doesn’t ever notice her own reflection in the mirror. She can stand next to the sink in the bathroom, drinking out of the faucet, and never bat an eyelash at the life-sized image of a gray-and-white cat right in front of her face.
As it turns out, very few animals have any interest in what experts call “self regard.”
Humans, of course, seem to be obsessed with the narcissistic activity. According to Greek myth, young handsome Narcissus couldn’t pull himself away from the beauty of his own reflection.
Parakeets appear to have their own kind of relationship with mirrors. Rather than fall in love with the image, they attack it. That reaction may be different from the cat’s, but the parakeet still doesn’t realize he’s looking at himself ” he just sees another badass parakeet.
Just a couple of years ago, scientists discovered Asian elephants have the capacity for self regard. Their vision isn’t very good, so the mirrors have to be extremely large, but Dumbo can stand and primp just like the most image-conscious teenager.
Chimpanzees ” our closest relatives ” have it, of course. Orangutans have it, too, but, surprisingly, gorillas don’t.
One expert recently proposed a list of requirements for the trait. In order to be able to see oneself in the mirror, the scientist hypothesized, an animal must be “highly social,” have a large brain and be capable of empathy.
We see some obvious problems with his theory. We know she’s “social,” but how much empathy, we wonder, does someone like Paris Hilton really have?
In addition to Ms. Hilton, the list of animals with the documented capacity for gazing at themselves lovingly in the mirror includes a couple of other surprises. Elephants, chimps, orangutans and dolphins make sense to us. But pigs and llamas round out the narcissistic group.
Llamas? Why not alpacas? Why not camels? And what, exactly, is a pig admiring when he looks in the mirror?
We could understand it if the list included chocolate Lab puppies, or any type of kitten. They would have something adorable to look at. But pigs?
We realize, rather uncomfortably, we could ask the same question about many humans, including ourselves.
The history of the human fascination with its own reflection prompts some other disquieting trains of thought.
The first mirrors our ancestors came up with were made of polished obsidian about 8,000 years ago. As human technology advanced, so did mirrors.
Although mirrors similar to those we have today have been around for a couple of millennia, mass-production of the fascinating objects didn’t become possible until 1835, when a German chemist invented the “silvered-glass” mirror.
Up until then, only the very wealthy could while away the hours looking at their own faces. Poorer people were condemned to guess what they looked like.
What was it like not to know you had a piece of spinach between your teeth or a big pimple on your forehead? How could people live like that?
They never knew they looked fat, for example. They probably spent no money on hairdressers or make-up or high fashion.
Today we laugh at some of the superstitions common to our misguided fore-parents. Many of them actually believed mirrors reflected the soul ” hence the lack of reflection experienced by vampires.
But is our modern attachment to the omnipresent mirror and what it tells us really any more rational?
We say we worry about what we look like to others because it’s important to look good in order to attract people and be happy.
Is that really true?
Is it our image that truly makes us happy? When we look at ourselves in the mirror, do we still believe we’re looking at our soul ” at what we are inside? If the teeth are white, the skin unblemished, and the smile charming, do we think everything else about us must be fine?
We don’t pretend to know the answers to any of these questions. We do have one friend, though, who told us she spent the happiest six months of her life in the African bush without once looking at herself in the mirror.
When we stop and really think about it, we’re a little jealous of the cat.
It’s Friday, and we’re out, feeling just mahvelous.
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