Bloody Mary, and Why We Think We See Things in Mirrors

iStock
iStock

As a child, one of the surest ways to prove your courage to all the other kids at the slumber party was to march into a dimly lit room (it was almost always a bathroom, for some reason), stare at your face in the mirror, and repeat the words Bloody Mary 13 times. According to legend, a woman would suddenly appear in the mirror and scratch your face off—or perhaps even kill you. Different iterations of this game exist around the world; alternate versions say the mysterious mirror woman goes by Mary Worth or Kathy, and in another version, the devil himself makes an appearance.

Of course, no ghosts or demons ever actually appeared, but that didn't stop us from running out of the bathroom screaming, convinced that we saw a twisted or bloodied face looking back at us. Even as adults, our minds sometimes play tricks on us. We may get spooked after thinking we see something in the mirror while getting ready for work or brushing our teeth, even though we are rational beings and understand that nothing is there.

It turns out there's a perfectly logical explanation for this. The longer you stare in a mirror, the more likely you are to start seeing things that aren't there—even if you haven't been forewarned that something ghastly will appear. This is partly due to a phenomenon called the Troxler effect. When you stare at the same object for a prolonged period of time, there comes a point when your brain adapts or gets used to unchanging stimuli. As a result, your neurons cancel the information out, and the image often appears blurry, faded, or distorted until you blink or look around.

Likewise, if you gaze into your own eyes in front of a mirror, your whole face will start to look strange if you look long enough. You can try this optical illusion out for yourself—no mirror needed. Stare at the plus sign in the center of the image below for seven or eight seconds.

Did the colorful blotches fade to gray? This is just one of the many ways your brain can trick you and distort your vision. It's actually an important coping mechanism, though. As Live Science puts it, "If you couldn't ignore the steady hum of your computer monitor, the constant smell of your own body odor or the nose jutting out in front of your face, you'd never be able to focus on the important things—like whether your boss is standing right behind you."

Another part of the phenomenon is the recently described “strange face in the mirror” illusion. Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo conducted an experiment in 2010 in which people were asked to enter a dimly lit room and look at their reflection in the mirror for 10 minutes. Afterwards, they were asked to report what they saw. Of the 50 test subjects, 66 percent reported seeing "huge deformations" of their face, and 48 percent also saw "fantastical and monstrous beings." Others described seeing the face of a parent (some of whom were deceased), the face of an animal, or the face of an old woman or child.

Humans in general have a remarkable ability to see faces in everyday objects—from clouds to trees to pieces of toast—so it makes sense that dim lighting and visual tricks would cause people to see another face of some kind. In addition, when an image is distorted, your brain draws from past experiences and expectations to fill in the gaps. Hence the dead relatives.

Interestingly, the same effect "can also be obtained during eye-to-eye gazing between two individuals," Caputo tells Mental Floss. In fact, this "inter-subjective gazing" produced an even higher number of "strange faces" seen by test subjects, according to another experiment conducted by Caputo in 2013.

So we've ruled out the presence of mirror monsters, but what about Bloody Mary? The origin of this particular mirror game would seem to be related to "Bloody" Mary I, who served as Queen of England in the 16th century—but folklorists are unconvinced.

That the figure goes by multiple names—such as Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Lou, etc.—suggests against a real person as the inspiration. Psychoanalysts have proposed that the game has to do with young girls and the onset of menstruation. Others have noted earlier analogues of the game, including a Robert Burns poem where he explained that if you "[t]ake a candle, and go alone to a looking glass; eat an apple before it; and some traditions say, you should comb your hair all the time," you'll see over your shoulder the face of the person you'll marry (and some psychoanalysts have even proposed an importance of the homophone Mary/marry). But as far as we know, no one has ever actually appeared in a mirror to confirm what—or who—Bloody Mary is about.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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