This post, and series, have been moved here.
This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.
What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).
Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)
Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.
I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.
Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.
And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.
Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)
P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.
Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe before disaster. Everything happens before you know it. This is the gift of light, the laggard.
You may think light speedy, and it is true that there is none to beat it in this universe: no hare, no rocket ship, no Kenyan swift of foot can do it better. But light’s tempo has a number, and by those digits it is bound, the same as any shackled lifer. Jean Valjean had 24601; light 299,792,458. Oh, it is a traveler par excellence. Nigh on three hundred million meters per second is nothing to sneeze at. Traveling, though, takes time. Traveling trails behind transpiring.
Last week, on a mountaintop dripping with stars, I regarded the Hunter as he drew back his arrow for the Hare. This he has done since Homer. Since Hesiod. It might seem he must do it forever; but he may already have dropped his bow. For Betelgeuse, the star in his right shoulder, is old enough that it must soon die—and distant enough that it may have done already, hundreds of years past. If so we are none the wiser. We stand somewhere in the 640 year-long gap of light’s passage, event on one side and understanding on the other.
Before you know it Betelgeuse will blow. Did blow. Will blow. Did blow. I watched the Hunter and his old red shoulder. I wondered at the night sky, so full of Schrodinger’s cats.
Between happening and knowing there is a space—no matter how small. Two mornings later, kneeling over a canyon pool, I saw the Santa Catalinas in still water. Observed the sun moving, ever so slowly, over their graceful bulk. Thought: As with the stars, so with all things.
Since they were only miles away, not light years, the light that carried the mountains’ countenance came to me fast, fast, fast—plummeting out of the sky headlong and caroming off the surface of the pool and into my eager eyes so quick you’d never even know there was a time between. An infinitesimal time. Still, there it was.
Before you know it—but just before—the sun dapples over the Santa Catalinas.
Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe. Before you know it you’re all grown up. Before you know it you’ve fallen in love. Before you know it he’s become someone else. Before you know it, you have too. You’ll see. Just wait a second. Let light catch up.
The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.
There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.
I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.
Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.
I bring my camera, of course.
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.
Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.
Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.
One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.
Photo taken at the MIT Museum.
It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.
When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.
That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.
In the fall of 1889, just past the height of bug-season in his home state, Henry C. M’Cook—then-Vice-President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and Vice-Director of the American Entomological Society—wrote a lively article for the North American Review in which he outlined ways of mitigating the reign of the pestilential mosquito. Four pages into his arguments, he found himself distracted (as we all are, from time to time) by a dragonfly.
I have read of a school—if memory serves me truly, it was situate in that highly-developed center of American civilization, New York City—whose session was broken up by the advent of an innocent dragon-fly through an open window. An alarm raised by one scholar passed through the entire room: “A devil’s darning needle! A devil’s darning needle!” The ominous phrase, piped in the shrill quaver of terrified childhood, alarmed the teacher, and the agitation became so general that the school had to be dismissed as an act of humanity.
I love the gentle sarcasm in that. “Act of humanity.” Dr. M’Cook, you were one sly scientist.
In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”
Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata—Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects—and the infraorder Anisoptera—Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings—have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes that so irritated M’Cook.
I tell you these things today because I spent the morning at Promontory Point, winding my way along the rocky strand where Lake Michigan hits Hyde Park—and, by the by, watching a levitation of dragonflies dart back and forth across the path and wheel between tall grasses. (I could find no consensus on the proper collective noun for dragonflies, if any exists. Mitchell and Lasswell offer dazzle; I went my own way.) Whatever you call them, they were magnificent: swift and glittering and alarmingly unpredictable—I had to duck, once, to get out of the way. So erratic were their flight paths that they seemed almost invulnerable to the greedy swoops of the ring-billed gulls that flew overhead.
I’m not sure which of the hundred or so species of dragonfly known to be seen in Illinois I was looking at. But there must have been at least two distinct kinds dancing in between each others’ wings, because all were fully grown, but some were large and some were small. Dragonflies, like almost all other winged insects, have already gone through their final molt by the time they are able to fly, and so every dragon in the air is an adult.
I saw a flash of blue, though I do not think what I saw was little enough to have been the impossibly wee Elfin Skimmer (Nannothemis bella). And it is a little late now for the Green Darner (Anax junius), a common sight around Chicago in the spring and fall. (The Darner is one of a tiny number of dragonflies that migrate seasonally. Recent study suggests that the most persevering of these creatures may cover round-trip distances as long as 16,000 kilometers. This is, coincidentally, nearly identical to the length of my own annual migration between Chicago and Singapore—a fact that floors me. When I get off that plane, I am bone-tired, dog-tired, dead-tired: but apparently not dragonfly-tired. I am shamed by insect-endurance.)
The other reason I tell you these things today is that the last time I got as close to an Anisopteran as I did this morning, I was in the New Orleans bayou, a year after Katrina. I remember being surprised then by their calm fearlessness: the way they would land on the edges of leaves right there under my nose, and turn their heads, set with eyes as heavy and faceted as precious stones. They let me come close enough to feel the air brush away from their wings as they took off again, and maybe their tranquility came from the sure and certain knowledge that they far outnumbered our curious band of swamp explorers. The coastal plains of Louisiana are dragonfly country. The air there is thick with the sound of their flight.
Which is why it is so hard to think of the way that country has changed over the past six weeks.
I. Oil Prevents Emergence
By the time we see a dragonfly, it has reached the end of its multifarious life cycle. Female dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water, and the nymph and larval stages both exist aquatically. The larvae of some species may spend a few months or as long as several years underwater before crawling above the surface to metamorphose into their final, satin-winged forms.
(I love thinking about this life, by the way—a life so focused on growth and preparation, in which the fulfillment of one’s basic plan for existence is vital, of course, but temporally inconsequential. I imagine myself like this right now, hunkered down, eating and growing and having no idea of what ultimate shape I will take, what satin wings I will have.)
But on the Gulf Coast, oil has flowed into the salt marshes where dragonflies lay their eggs—spread itself like a blanket over their underwater atmosphere. As long as its black covering remains, dragonfly larvae from eggs laid weeks or months or years ago will be unable to split the water’s surface without at once covering themselves in pitch.
II. Oil Looks Better Than Water
Like many other insects, fish, and mammals (though not humans), dragonflies are sensitive to the presence of polarized light. The light receptor cells in their retinas are full of the photoreceptive protein called rhodopsin. So are ours. But in the human eye, rhodopsin molecules within each cell are arranged haphazardly, with their axes running at random angles. As a result, our eyes collect light indiscriminately. We have no way of differentiating scattered light, whose waves vibrate in all directions, from polarized light—in which vibrations have been restricted to a single plane.
In dragonfly eyes, rhodopsin molecules within each light receptor cell are aligned in parallel. That means the molecules preferentially absorb beams of light whose waves are vibrating in the same direction and enter the eye in the same orientation: thus hitting all those neatly arranged rhodopsin molecules at just the angle towards which they collectively lean. In other words, dragonfly eyes are especially greedy for polarized light. And since large, flat bodies of water like ponds, lakes, and oceans polarize light as they reflect it, that’s a pretty helpful attribute for an insect that hunts, mates, and lay its eggs over water.
Except water isn’t the only thing that reflects polarized light. Not by a long shot. Dark-colored cars do it. Glossy black tombstones do it. Both have been shown to confuse insects like dragonflies, which often choose to mate above such objects instead of above water, and even attempt to lay their eggs on these strange, inhospitable surfaces.
And then there is crude oil. Thick, black, shiny crude oil, the kind covering vast swathes of the Gulf of Mexico at the moment. In the late 1990s, a group of Hungarian scientists found themselves intrigued by the odd behavior of dragonflies that hovered and mated around the shiny black surface of the open-air waste oil reservoir in Budapest. By comparing the number of dragonflies that were caught in traps containing plain water, salad oil, and crude oil, the researchers convincingly demonstrated that the glittering creatures “can be deceived by and attracted to crude and waste oil.” In fact, their results suggested dragonflies actually prefer crude oil to water, probably because oil more strongly polarizes light.
On the Gulf Coast, then, it seems more than likely that as we speak, dragonflies are taking oil for water.
We are oiling the devil’s darning needle—just when it would, perhaps, do very well to sew together our fingers and toes.
Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP
I don’t know what it’s like for you, but there are days when it feels I’m like meeting someone for the first time. Her features seem foreign to me, and that, in its way, is not so far from the truth.
I don’t know what it’s like for you: there are days when I am most comfortable if the sight is brief. Best if I have a specific task, like brushing my teeth or plucking at the ragged curve of my eyebrows until one bends to match the other; best if I can file the required report and move on, before too much is seen: Go ahead and wear that shirt. It looks well on you. No, there is no scratch on your cheek. It must have been a momentary twitch of a nerve… Yes, you look as tired as you feel. More tired. There it is. It’s not that I am ashamed, understand; my self-esteem is not a dress that has fallen and must be tugged back up. It’s not that I never stare; oh, stare I do. But there’s something unnerving about it.
I don’t know what it’s like for you. For me it’s a question of manners. Too direct a gaze creates an impossible challenge: which pair of eyes will drop first? I know that both are mine. Yet how strange is what I perceive—that I am at home inside one set of arms and legs, and at the same time these very limbs are hanging quite happily on a separate frame. That I am twinned.
I live quite comfortably with this contradiction, of course; but I suppose I haven’t always.
Babies aren’t born with what psychologists (somewhat ploddingly) call “mirror self-recognition.” It takes many months before they’re able to draw an unfaltering line between their reflections and themselves, to comprehend that the stare that meets their own so fearlessly does not belong to another human being. It’s not just a question of waiting until certain inevitable developments take place in the brain, either—though that is important. A light bulb doesn’t just blaze on one day and transform stranger into self. No; in fact, developing the ability to recognize one’s own body in the mirror seems to be a surprisingly rational undertaking, and one that builds over time.
In 1979—the year I was born, naked of a sense of self— two scientists named Lewis and Brooks-Gunn tumbled a series of burbling 12-month-old babies in front of a mirror, to see what they could see. The vast majority of them, the experimenters observed, engaged in something they called “contingent play”—so named because the movements of a reflection are contingent upon one’s own movements.
Having noticed that there was a being opposite them in the glass, and having perceived that the behavior of this being seemed oddly familiar, the babies would proceed to carry out clever studies of their own. Staring at their reflections, they would perform the same series of movements over and over again, each time watching intently to see if the strange creature in front of them would follow their lead correctly. They bobbed their heads up and down, bounced their chubby bodies enthusiastically, carefully waved their arms back and forth, all the while with eyes growing wide as they began to clarify and confirm the fact that they possessed a perfectly synchronous imitative partner who would do all that they did at just the same moment. These early play sessions seem to be a necessary first step towards claiming one’s reflection as one’s own.
(They are not sufficient, for it is possible to recognize that your movements dictate those of another without recognizing that the two are one and the same. The full understanding that the face opposite you in the mirror is your own does not generally arrive until late in the second year of life, according to subsequent studies. When that understanding comes, it can truly be described as self-consciousness. One common test of mirror self-recognition is to dab a spot of rouge on a child’s nose, then place them in front of a mirror. A sheepish, or frustrated, rubbing at the spot is the positive indicator researchers are looking for.)
But listen; am I the only one who is astounded by the canny, systematic tests those children conducted? Am I the only one who went straight to the mirror to reenact them, nursing a tiny thrill and half-hoping to catch my other self shifting her neck just a heartbeat too late? Because I’ll tell you what the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study says to me. It says that seeing yourself does not come easily.
Let’s put it this way: to know an apple, say, is straightforward. Hold it in your palm; take in its dangerous crimson; scrutinize its glossy skin. It is entirely self-contained. Its apple-y nature is self-evident. To know your own face in the mirror is different. You have to slide into the apprehension sideways, gather together a body of physical evidence and reason your way towards the truth:
When I nod, she nods. When I stare, she stares back. Her arms follow my arms; her legs stretch as far as mine. This plant does not move when I move; it is not part of me. This other person moves without my say-so; he is not part of me. Only she, with her skin so brown and her feet curling under her like frightened mice—only she moves with me. So. This is who I am. These are the things I am made of. These are my boundaries in space.
I don’t remember collecting those proofs. I don’t remember building my sense of self like this, brick by brick with my baby-brain. But I believe that I did, and you as well. And I’ll tell you something else: I believe that we’re in good company. Elephants, apes, and dolphins can learn to see themselves through contingent play, too.
Also, robots. Robots can learn to see themselves. Are you smiling yet? Listen, at the very least, one robot can that I know of—its name is Nico. I read about Nico in this charming paper, published last year. In it, two Yale computer scientists show how, with the help of three algorithms that deftly compare data to experience, a robot “can learn over time whether an item in its visual ﬁeld is controllable by its motors, and thus a part of itself.”
First, Nico spends some time—four minutes, to be precise—waving its arm back and forth and carefully noting the shape of its own movements. Then, it’s ready to look itself in the eye, so to speak. Nico is placed in front of a mirror, whose contents are captured in a streaming image by a wide-angle lens embedded in what would be Nico’s right eye. Carefully monitoring that video stream, the robot continues to motor its arm around in random directions, checking for precisely contingent movements in the reflected scene. It consults the algorithms in its memory, calculating the probability that what it sees is really Nico. Very quickly, then, the robot is able to accurately determine whether it happens to be looking at itself, an inanimate object, or an animate other.
Once it has understood the form of its own arm, learned the way in which its joints shift position—once it has traced the essential outline of its own metallic body—Nico can be said, in a very real sense, to recognize itself. And after that understanding has set in, no one (not even a sly researcher insinuating himself into the scene and painstakingly mimicking Nico’s movements) can fool it. Nico knows exactly what it is.
But achieving that knowledge demands two things, both of which are clearly spelled out in the title of the Yale paper: time and reasoning.
Seeing yourself doesn’t come naturally; it’s not fundamental to your understanding of the world in general. And it can’t be accomplished simply by having someone else tell you who you are in the glass; it’s not a fact you swallow, but a judgment you come to. At first—ask a baby; ask a robot—it’s not at all silly to narrow your eyes at that odd-looking stranger and wonder why they’re copying what you do. At first, surely it’s right and proper to be suspicious of the shade in the mirror.
When it comes right down to it, I mean, you might be wrong about the whole thing.
Here’s the thing: When I think of myself, what comes to mind is less a single clear and shining image of my own face than a shifting sensation of me-ness: a complex amalgamation of memories, ideas, and sensory impressions. I am the one around whom my husband’s arms wrap, the pressure of his musculature against my own clearly defining the shape of my body. I am the one who lay at the foot of my parents’ bed as a child, listening to the hum and click and drip of their ancient air-conditioner and imagining the sounds growing larger and larger until they merged with my own heartbeat. I am the one who frets for hours before phone calls, sweaty and pale, who dances while she cleans, who hates hair in her face and still remembers the sharp, dusty taste of the whiskey sours she used to drink because she liked the way they made her tongue twist up inside her mouth.
I am the one who feels the way I feel, thinks the way I think, not—or not just—the one who looks the way I look. And how do I look, anyway? No matter how many tests I run, no matter how much I grow to trust the image before me in the glass, the sight of my own face is always mediated through layer after layer of tin, silver, glass, copper, paint. I’ve never seen it without a mirror as middleman, without a bender and broker of light. What if the person I’m seeing isn’t who I think it is at all? Why should their mere resemblance to me be sufficient identification?
I live quite comfortably with this suspicion, of course; but not everyone does.
People with a extremely rare disorder known as Capgras delusion come to believe that those whom they love have been replaced by impostors. These strangers are identical to my mother, my sister, my brother, Capgras sufferers say, but they are not them. They are different people entirely. Their features—remarkably similar! The close resemblance is uncanny! But no; they are certainly not the ones I know. They are frauds. I do not recognize them.
The extent of the delusion is such that, confronted with their own reflections, Capgras patients are apt to startle violently. Why, I’ve never seen this person before! they may exclaim, in horror and disgust. Some engage in the same kind of contingent play that babies do, pinching themselves and waving their arms, keeping a chary eye on the ghoul in the mirror—but unlike babies, they will not be satisfied by the paltry evidence of their own eyes. And when repeated gazes into a mirror call up the same disagreeable stranger again and again, people with Capgras may accuse their likenesses of deliberately appearing in their lives solely to stalk and torment them. Capgras delusion steals a person’s ability to see their own true selves, and replaces it with an uninvited guest who cannot—will not—leave them alone. I confess, I sympathize.
But how exactly does this happen? Capgras patients are otherwise, for all intents and purposes, normal—whatever that means. Their vision is not impaired, and neither is their cognitive functioning; nor are any aspects of their memory. Their negative emotional response to their loved ones and their own reflections is bizarre, to say the least, but in some sense it’s also perfectly lucid and reasonable. It matches, after all, precisely the way you would expect someone to react if everyone in their inner circle of intimates had been replaced by an impostor. (And wouldn’t you yell if your beloved reflection suddenly turned into someone you knew, deeply and profoundly, wasn’t you at all?)
So what causes this extraordinary disconnection between vision and belief, between seeing a person, recognizing their features, and correctly identifying them as someone whom you know and love? The inimitable UCSD behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has a lovely theory about this. Look, he says: Sensory information about objects the eye sees is transmitted from the retina into visual centers in the temporal lobes. Here, the object is identified: This looks like a teapot, this looks like a poodle, this looks like my sister. Capgras patients can accomplish this part of seeing perfectly well.
But after an object has been identified, the brain continues to work. It sends its decoded information to the limbic system, which is a complex network of brain structures that enables the perception and expression of emotions. One of the first places this visual information passes through is the amygdala (the name means almond-shaped, which it is). Ramachandran explains that the amygdala is responsible for labeling the emotional content of what the eye has seen. This object is beloved, the amygdala concludes, and should trigger affection; this one is despised, and should trigger hate.
This visual data, then, becomes colored with a layer of emotional interpretation; it travels on towards other structures in the brain. At its final stop, what began with a glance at a face sets in motion at last the physiological responses that enable a person to actually experience the appropriate emotion: things like a speedier heart rate, higher blood-pressure, and a light film of sweat covering the skin. (For what is emotion but the brain, talking to the body, talking to the brain?)
You might imagine that a rather odd sensation might occur if this process were disrupted somewhere after the point where an object is decoded and before the point where the emotion that ought to be associated with it is actually experienced. Ramachandran did. He asks:
Is it possible that in this patient there has been a disconnection between the face area of the temporal lobes and the part concerned with the experience of emotion? Perhaps the face area and the amygdala are both intact, but the two areas have been disconnected from each other. When (the patient) looks at his mother, even though he realizes that she resembles his mother, he does not experience the appropriate warmth, and therefore says ‘Well, if this is my mother, why is it I’m not experiencing any emotion? This must be some strange person.’
I think of a person like this, and how they must feel when they stare at the mirror, eyes fixed full upon their own faces and hearts as hard as stone. Do they never, now, experience the comfort of being alone with themselves?
It hasn’t been proven, so far, the hypothesis that the Capgras delusion is caused by the neurological disconnect that Ramachandran describes—but its elements catch at my heart. It’s not enough to simply identify a person in order to truly know them. The brain needs more. It’s not enough to match the movements of a reflection to your own in order to recognize it as yourself. The brain needs more. Seeing yourself does not come easily. It requires time. It requires reason. And, beyond all that, it requires some measure of affection.
Knowing this, I return to my counterpart in the mirror—the one who still seems so strange to me sometimes—and am moved to tenderness. I look on her for a long moment, studying the shape of her lips, the brown of her eyes. I forgive our separation, forget the times when her eyes have challenged mine or mine hers, and gaze.
Because if I do not see her, how will I love her?
And if I do not love her, how can I see her?
If you’re fascinated by reflections, I can do no better than to recommend the deep and intricate treatment of the subject in Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. I found my copy in the stacks of Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, on my honeymoon.