December 2023

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The age-old question of whether we truly see ourselves as we are has intrigued philosophers, psychologists and scientists for decades. Many people wonder which version of themselves is more accurate, the one in photographs or the one in the mirror. Does the mirror show me what I really look like? Is it true that the camera never lies? Do selfies show me a true picture of myself? Most people prefer the image of themselves in the mirror to the one in photographs, the one seen directly with the eyes rather than through the lens of a camera.


There are similarities and differences between the human eye and the camera. Both contain a lens through which light enters. Both process the light to capture images, but while the camera simply captures the image, the visual system makes sense of what is seen. Unlike the camera, which records static images of particular moments in time, the eyes are constantly receiving a flow of dynamic visual input which is interpreted by the brain using information such as expectations, past experience and environmental factors.

The photographic image is two-dimensional, but the human eye receives images in three dimensions. By means of small muscles, the eyes are able to adjust their focus as they look around. The camera relies on a variety of lenses to adjust the focus at various distances. An advantage of the camera is that an image that has been captured can be recorded but the eye is unable to record what is seen, except in memory.

Lighting has a role to play in the way our image is captured. While the eyes are able to adjust naturally to the lighting in a room as we look at ourselves in a mirror, the harsh flash of a camera in dim lighting can result in an unflattering photograph.

The fundamental difference between the human eye and the camera is that the eye is a sensory organ while the camera is an optical device. Overall, most of the advantages of the visual system stem from the fact that the brain is able to interpret the information from the eyes, whereas with a camera, all we have is the raw image.


Mirrors introduce spatial reversal, where left and right appear switched, but the brain adapts to this and learns to interpret it, allowing us to navigate it effortlessly. Photographs do not possess this spatial reversal, presenting an unaltered objective representation. The brain processes these diverse visual inputs differently, contributing to the distinct cognitive responses we have when we see ourselves in the mirror or in a photograph.

Research has shown that the majority of people are most comfortable with the image of themselves in the mirror. Although it is literally a mirror image which shows us a reflection of how we look in reverse, it is the image we see more regularly than photographs and with which we are most familiar. A mirror presents a dynamic natural real-time reflection in which we see ourselves as we are in the moment, with the nuances of movement, posture and expression. It may be closer to what we look like in reality, but our perception of ourselves in the mirror is not necessarily an accurate representation of how others see us because the image has been reversed.

The immediate feedback from a mirror allows us to view subtle changes and facilitates small immediate adjustments to our facial expressions, angles and positions so that we see different perspectives of ourselves. In contrast, a photograph freezes a single moment, preserving a single expression or pose which is a more objective and less biased representation of ourselves devoid of the continuous self-adjustments. The inability to make real-time modifications introduces a sense of permanence and adds a layer of emotion when viewing a photograph. The permanent capture of a specific moment in time may not align with our current self-image or may trigger nostalgia or reflections of time past. Neither better nor worse, these different experiences allow us the opportunity to both embrace the present and reflect on the past.

Unlike with our mirror selves, it is possible to compare photographs until we find the one with which we feel most comfortable, and with modern technology, photographs can also be edited in order to achieve a more accurate (or acceptable?) depiction. The mirror usually shows a front-facing view of our face, while a camera can capture angles that we may not typically see in the mirror and are therefore less familiar and perhaps less comfortable with.


How do we perceive and interpret our own reflections? The differences between seeing ourselves in a mirror and in a photograph are not merely visual, but are rooted in an interplay of psychological, perceptual and technical factors and the intricate workings of the brain. Our own biases and self-perception can influence how we see and understand our reflection in the mirror or in a photograph. What may be an accurate depiction to an outside observer may not align with our own internal view of ourselves.

In essence, both the mirror and the camera contribute to our self-perception, offering unique perspectives on our physical appearance and allowing us to appreciate the multifaceted nature of our identity.

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This newsletter article is authored by EyeMark.
The views and opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the optometrist.