The Terror of Self-Reflection
You’ve no doubt heard the story of the anthropologists who visited a primitive tribe and took pictures of them. The tribe freaked out, worried that the pictures were ‘stealing their souls’.
This is a story that, at least when I was growing up, was widely circulated with a kind of awe – can you imagine how strange it would be to see a camera for the first time? And there was also a little bit of pride in there – look at those primitive tribes without technology.
Which is why I was fascinated to read the real story in Melissa Dahl’s book Cringeworthy. Dahl identifies the anthropologist as Edmund Carpenter and the photographer as Adelaide de Menil, who went to New Guinea to study the Biami tribe.
What drew Carpenter there in 1969 was that he was nearly certain none of the Biami had ever really seen their own reflection. They had only shards of mirrors and otherwise only running river water, which obviously don’t offer a clear reflection.
It’s true that Carpenter and Menil brought polaroids and cameras. They also brought tape recorders. And it’s true that the Biami people freaked out when they first saw pictures of themselves and heard their own voices played back to them. They covered their mouths and ducked their heads.
This trauma doesn’t last long. Carpenter reported that within a matter of days they were grooming themselves in front of mirrors, taking pictures of each other, wearing out the batteries on the tape recorders.
Carpenter reflected on how swiftly they moved from terror to pleasure, on why the Biami initially covered their mouths and ducked their heads away from their images.
I think they do so to prevent loss of identity. New Guineans call it loss of soul, but it’s the same phenomenon. It’s their response to any sudden embarrassment, any sudden self-consciousness.
We don’t like the fact that how we exist in our own heads is not how others experience us in the real world. It’s why we take 200 selfies to get just the right angle, and why we love the filters on SnapChat that smooth out lines and add a bit of otherworldly glow to our faces.
Psychologists identify a gap we all experience sometimes – a gap between how we feel inside and what we actually project outside. How we see ourselves and how others see us. That gap always exists, but we’re able to ignore it until something happens – you trip while walking straight, or run into a too-clean glass door. Or you make a joke and it doesn’t land.
And suddenly it’s obvious – to you and everyone else – that the way you see yourself isn’t the way everyone else sees you. Maybe you’re not as graceful or attractive or clever or moral as you think you are.
There’s a gap.
And our natural reaction to this gap is the same as the Biami: we get embarrassed. We try to play it off, make a joke, anything to cover that feeling:
One of the most difficult truths of human nature is that we don’t know ourselves. We’re masters of self-deception. Consider this singular truth that will melt your brain: we have never once seen ourselves exactly as others do. Mirrors reverse our images – it’s why photographs of ourselves look slightly weird. The closest we can get to seeing ourselves as others do is with videos and pictures. The self I experience and the me you experience are never the same, especially in real time.
So the question we’re going to ask in this series is, “How can we learn to see ourselves as we are in the world? How can we learn to see past our self-deceptions? How can we know ourselves more truthfully?”