The face as a mirror

Written by Eloise Ballou

Your face is constantly resonating with the faces of others, reverberating with their pleasure or their pain. Your face is also always sending out signals, displaying the fleeting emotions you feel throughout the day.

Have you ever noticed a frown on your face, but couldn’t identify why it was there? Did you notice the sour look a passerby gave you a few moments earlier? Or perhaps you realized a mistake you had made at work, and now needed to remember to correct? What effect will your frown have on your coworker, or on your spouse as you return home?


A laughing child leaves behind a trail of smiling strangers, like a sunny wake. When I experience this, I’m always struck by how grim urbanites are suddenly connected, making eye contact with each other as we notice each other’s smiles. We are struck by the unexpected joy we feel from merely intercepting this beam of pure happiness. We suddenly notice the absence of a smile we had just a moment earlier.


Our faces send out powerful waves which we may not be aware of. If we look carefully, we will see our own face reflected in the face of others.

This reflecting, or mirroring, is central to how we develop an awareness of our own emotions. From the moment we begin to interact with others as young infants, we learn to read the faces of others, and read our own faces in theirs.


Children stare at faces more than anything else

Have you ever noticed how, in the presence of an infant, you find yourself making strange faces? As if possessed, you smile and raise your eyebrows, looking for a reflection of your face in theirs. This kind of interaction would be unimaginable with an adult. Yet with an infant, it seems the most natural thing in the world.

The child responds to your face by imitating it, smiling when you do, leading you to smile even more broadly. This back-and-forth exchange happens within seconds of seeing an infant, without instruction or guidance on either side.

You may not realize it, but you’ve become a mirror to the infant.

Infants imitating Meltzoff's expressions
Infants imitating a researcher’s expressions
Even looking at the images of infants above, you may be tempted to imitate their expressions. The instinct is a powerful one.

It can be immensely gratifying to see the infant respond to your face so closely. You may feel warmth and connection swell in you before you are even aware of the exchange you’ve just had. This speaks to the profound evolutionary roots of this behaviour. The child needs you to act in this way for its development, and you find pleasure in doing so, reinforcing your actions.

Pablo Picasso - Mother and child (sketch)
Pablo Picasso – Mother and child (sketch)
Using the faces of others to understand ourselves

As infants, we learn to identify our internal emotional states by seeing our emotions mirrored on our caregiver’s face. The caregiver’s expressions are comically exaggerated at first, but as the child ages these reflections become more subtle.

Caregivers also help children identify their emotions by using words, creating links between how they feel and how to label those feelings. This is the first step to identifying patterns between emotions and situations, and learning to manage and tolerate different emotional states.

This kind of emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) is closely linked to success in many areas of life. Without mirroring, this skill can never develop.

What is your emotional intelligence quotient? Click here for a quick test.

Psychoanalytic theories have explored mirroring in great detail, underlining its importance in developing a sense of self. Mirroring is also central to understanding that others’ minds are separate from our own (a concept known as mentalization), which is strongly linked to the kinds of relationships we form as adults.


When mirroring stops

The importance of mirroring is best demonstrated when things go wrong.

This is seen most clearly in the Stillface Experiment, a protocol designed by Dr Edward Tronick, which studied pairs of infants and their mothers. It powerfully demonstrates how a disruption in mirroring can trigger powerful reactions in the infant.

At first, mothers interact naturally with their infants.

You can see how the mother and child’s expressions are perfectly in sync.




Now things change.

The mother is asked to keep her face perfectly still and to no longer respond to her child’s expressions.

(This is actually surprisingly difficult to do.)


Within seconds, the infant notices that something’s not right. She immediately reacts to try to re-establish her connection.


She waves her arm…


…and then checks to see if her mother has responded.

No luck.


She points…


…and checks to see if her mother will follow her gesture with her eyes.

Still no response.

The infant now begins to get distressed.


She frowns and spontaneously loses her muscle tone.


She screams and waves her hands.


She flails her arms, cries and thrashes around. It looks as if the infant is in physical pain, such is her level of distress.

Remember, all the mother has done is to stop responding visually to her child’s expressions for a few seconds.

Finally, the experiment ends. The mother is instructed to interact with her child as she would normally.


The infant looks confused for a second…


…and then reaches out to her mother in joy and relief.


She throws her arms in the air with happiness.


And the mirroring resumes. Mother and child are reunited.

Watching this video can be uncomfortable. It’s a relief when the experiment ends and things return to their natural order.

Gustav Klimt - Mother and Child
Gustav Klimt – Mother and Child
Good enough parenting

Mirroring doesn’t have to always be perfect.

The idea of the “good enough parent” was originally developed by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. He described parenting that matches reality, and is therefore at times imperfect.

“[The caregiver] starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.”

— Donald Winnicott, 1953

Donald Winnicott
Donald Winnicott
This idea of “good enough” parenting has been picked up by popular media more recently. These are attempts to address the challenges of parenting in a cultural climate which expects perfection and sacrifice by parents, and especially mothers. Winnicott addressed these concerns over 50 years ago, underlining the idea that parenting is challenging and complex, and perfection is impossible. In fact, perfection is not healthy for the child, since a parent is helping their child prepare for the real world, which is not perfect either.

The longstanding patterns of how we relate to others are formed in early childhood, largely through our caregivers’ responses to our distress. Parents who had poor mirroring themselves may then have difficulty mirroring their own children, passing it on to the next generation.

When depression impairs mirroring

Unfortunately, sometimes caregivers are unable to provide “good enough” mirroring. This has been studied in depressed mothers. Depression prevents the mother’s face from being as expressive as it usually would be. As a result, they cannot mirror their infants as closely.

The mother’s unexpressive face causes an interaction that resembles the Stillface experiment we saw above, where the infant struggles to see itself mirrored in its mother’s face. In studies that have examined this dynamic, pairs of depressed mothers and infants are less animated during their spontaneous interactions.

Infants with depressed mothers also respond differently to interrupted mirroring in the Stillface experiment. In infants with non-depressed mothers, there was an increase in activity following the still-face experience, suggesting there was a need to reinstate connection after it was severed.

This was not the case with infants of depressed mothers. Paradoxically, these infants were less distressed by the still-face condition than those with non-depressed mothers. Perhaps the knowledge that their mothers were generally less responsive caused the still-face condition to not be that different from how their mothers usually responded. However, the lack of reactivity after their reunion also suggests that they had less hope for increased responsiveness. They had already learned to adapt by keeping their own faces more still and knew their efforts at connection would be fruitless.

Sano di Pietro - Madonna and Child
Sano di Pietro – Madonna and Child
This adaptive response, demonstrated so early in life, underlines the long-term consequences of behaviour learned as an infant. If a child assumes that all further interactions will resemble this initial (and fundamental) one with their primary caregiver, it normalizes in the child a type of interaction that is in fact abnormal.

This lack of mirroring can profoundly impair the infant’s emotional and cognitive development. The literature shows that infants of depressed mothers have increased risk for developmental delay and may also have more difficulty with relationships as adults.

The research clearly demonstrates the centrality of mirroring in infant development, and highlights the importance of diagnosing and treating depression in mothers.

Dorothea Lange – “Migrant Mother” (1936)

Diagnosing depression through your mother’s face

Can you identify depression just by looking at someone’s brain scan while they look at an image of their mother’s face? A recent study investigated this and came to a surprising finding.

Researchers separated the subjects into two groups: healthy controls and subjects who had been diagnosed with depression through a psychiatric interview and a standardized test (Beck Depression Inventory II).

The team then used fMRI imaging to look at the left anterior paracingulate gyrus (aPCG), an area believed to be involved in empathy and understanding intentions in social interactions. Participants were asked to look at either images of their mother, or images of a close friend or a stranger.

Using a regression analysis, researchers were able to identify subjects with depression based only on brain imaging with an accuracy level of nearly 90%. However, this was only true when subjects were looking at images of their mother. Something about the activation in this brain area when looking at their mother’s face distinguished depressed subjects from controls.

Though this is early research and remains to be replicated, it suggests that the sight of our mother’s face does something quite unique to our brains. Given the difficulty in diagnosing many mental illnesses, including depression, the potential applications of this research are intriguing and potentially transformative.

The stillface in real life

Mirroring doesn’t end in childhood. Think to a recent situation where you noticed that the person in front of you did not reflect the emotions on your face.

Expressionless Face Emoji
Expressionless Face Emoji

When this happened, you probably felt overwhelmed or confused, before realizing why you felt that way.

The absence of mirroring may cause you to react like the infant in the Stillface experiment, exaggerating your own facial expressions in an unconscious and automatic attempt to re-establish connection. As your facial expressions escalate, often fruitlessly, you may feel increasingly foolish.

Think of how this might occur in a job interview.

This is what greets you on an interview panel
How do you feel looking at this interview panel?
A panel of strangers, who are explicitly there to judge you, may not respond to your facial cues. They might believe this “neutrality” will lead to a more objective assessment of you as a candidate.

Whenever we are faced with these still faces, underneath our polite exteriors, we feel the same overwhelming anxiety and confusion as the infant does. The normal order is broken, and we scramble to understand how we can restore things to how they were.

In a job interview, you might be able to counteract your instinctual anxiety when faced with lack of emotional reciprocity. However, this requires a significant amount of cognitive energy, draining you of the precious resources needed to answer questions thoughtfully and accurately. This “neutrality” is unlikely to allow you to reveal yourself at your best.

If you’ve ever had the experience of performing poorly in the face of someone else’s unresponsive face, you likely remember it quite well. These experiences stay with us. Even the memory alone may be distressing enough to be avoided.

The difficulty is that when you are in a vulnerable position (for example, as an interview candidate) or where the situation is ambiguous (for example, on a date), you become very attuned to the other person’s face. You instinctively recognize that you need more information than usual and it becomes essential to understand what the other person’s face is telling you. When they make their face unreadable, resisting their natural response to your face, it can be profoundly confusing and upsetting. It’s exhausting for both parties, and leads to a profound break in communication.

It’s hard to not personalize these situations when they occur. This is part of why they are so distressing. This is also why being aware of the pattern and understanding what is happening in the moment is so powerful.

If you find yourself in a situation where you believe “neutrality” will lead to a better assessment of another person, remember that you are disrupting their natural social patterns. This makes it impossible for you to understand them in any real way, which is at cross-purposes to your goal. In fact, those who are most empathetic and attuned to the facial cues of others will be the most disrupted by your behaviour, qualities which are valued and useful to almost any team or organization.

Jan Van Eyck – Lucca Madonna

The face as a mirror

We’ve reviewed how early mirroring between mothers and children can have lifelong consequences. However, most parents are more than good enough, raising children who are able to identify and respond appropriately to their inner emotional states.

Non-responsive faces are profoundly distressing to us, even as adults. “Neutrality” is anything but.

Think of the number of subtle cues you read on the faces of others every day, and now think of how your face responds to others. How responsive is your own face? How can awareness of mirroring change how you interact with others from this day on?