In the age of Zoom, many people have discovered how very uncomfortable it is to look at their own faces. I’ve been teaching mirror meditation to help students overcome self-criticism and develop more self-acceptance for several years. Typically, I’ve noticed that once people get past their initial self-criticisms that are evoked by seeing their own face, they find looking at themselves to be therapeutic. So what’s happening in your brain when you look at your own face?
The relationship between the “self-face” and the brain
As humans, we each have a powerful ability to recognize our faces easily. Our own face has a special meaning because of its importance for our identity and our sense of self. Research shows that our own face (called the self-face) is recognized more quickly and accurately than the faces of other people we know. This self-face prioritization effect also occurs compared with familiar faces (e.g., family and friends). Therefore, researchers have concluded that this effect does not happen just because your face is highly familiar but because it is personally unique information to you.
Researchers designed a study to show participants their self-face so rapidly that it was only perceived below their conscious awareness. They wanted to understand just how deep this special relationship goes. The self-face advantage was demonstrated at both the conscious level and the subconscious level. We are better at recognizing our own faces compared to the faces of others, even when the information is delivered subliminally, that is below the threshold of our conscious awareness.
In a recent study, “Self-Face Activates the Dopamine Reward Pathway Without Awareness,” researchers from Osaka University found that a central element of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain is activated when participants are subliminally shown images of their own face. They found that activation of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain is stronger for subliminal presentations of the participant’s own face than the faces of others. By contrast, subliminal presentation of the faces of others induced activation in the amygdala of the brain, which is known to respond to unfamiliar information.
So, looking at your own face can be rewarding — even if you’re not consciously aware of it. Perhaps this is why many of my students who practice mirror meditation find it so calming once they get over their initial conscious self-criticisms. You can read more about it in the post, “What Mirror Meditation Can Teach You.”
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of João Camargo.