The history of how we see ourselves


We take mirrors for granted today, but a reflective surface probably played a crucial role in the development of human self awareness. Obviously if you see an image of yourself, and realise that image is you, self awareness has been acheived. This could only have first happened when people looked into the water of ponds or gently flowing rivers. Not surprisingly springs, rivers, ponds and lakes have often been invested with spiritual significance. The huge Bronze Age monument at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, a ritual bridge structure across an area of water meadow, probably celebrated the reflective characteristics of water.

The earliest manufactured mirrors were made from obsidian, a rare, naturally reflective volcanic rock. Examples of obsidian mirrors have been found in the area of Anatolia in modern day Turkey, dating to around 6000BC. From 4000BC craftsmen in Mesopotamia were making polished copper mirrors. From this time onwards mirror manufacture continued as a highly expensive business, confining ownership of mirrors to the rich. It wasn’t until 1835 that the silvered glass mirror was invented by German chemist Justus Von Liebig, and mass production became possible. Today mirrors are everywhere. We brush our teeth, style hair, and squeeze spots in them. But mirrors were the first place where we became aware of ourselves, and are now used as a basic test of self-awareness in the animal kingdom. In 1970 the psychologist Gordon Gallup developed the Mirror Test to judge ability in self recognition. So far only humans and other great apes, dolphins, orcas, European magpies, and a single Asiatic elephant have passed the mirror test.

So that mirror in your bathroom was the place humanity first became aware of themselves, and where we discovered we are not alone in this ability.

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