10/101 The Scrying Glass: Who Will You Marry?

A woman holds a lighted candle before a mirror, in which is reflected her and a man. The capion is 'on halloween look in the glass, your futire husbands face will pass'. The shadow of a witch with hat and broomstick is seen on the left behind the mirror.

Equipment Needed for this Exploration

A Mirror

A Dimly-lit room

Some patience and courage

The Background

There is a long history of people ‘scrying’ – gazing into reflective surfaces like crystal balls, mirrors, pools of water and so on and reporting visions. Often these scryers believed they could divine event in the past or future, or see what was happening now but somewhere else. In their belief a scrying glass could extend their reach of vision in time and space.

Dr Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, had a ‘shew stone’ of polished obsidian, brought from Mexico by Cortes about 1530. This object survives and is in the British Museum. The name of the Mexica god Tezcatlipoca means ‘Smoking Mirror’.

A scrying glass can’t really offer supernatural insight (in my view at least). But recent investigation shows that if we gaze into a mirror in the right lighting conditions most of us will see vivid images. We don’t witness the past, present or future, only what the visual system invents if it has insufficient data. But the illusions can be quite startling.

Research by Caputo (2010) describes a scientific test. Fifty young adults were asked to to look f0r 10 minutes into a mirror in a dimly illuminated room. Almost all saw some sort of altered face, such as: their own in distorted form, a parent’s, an animal, a fairy story figure such as an old lady, or a monster.

Caputo’s paper was explored again more recently in Scientific American and tied in with a legend about seeing the Devil. The experimental description below is based on the Sci Am article and Caputo’s original publication.

The Experiment

1. Arrange to look into a mirror, preferably of reasonable size. A bathroom mirror would be about right.

2. The room should be dimly illuminated (Caputo used 25 W), from behind you. It should be possible to see fine facial detail but the light should not be sufficient to see colours well.

3. Avoid external distractions such a noise and make sure the light source is not visible either directly or reflected in the mirror.

4. Stare at your face in the mirror. You may see what Caputo called the ‘strange-face illusion after a minute or so. Give it up to 10 minutes.

Please write in and say what you see!


1. The visions recounted by Caputo’s subjects are extraordinary and the evidence seems strong that this illusion is one most people will experience in the right conditions.

However for me it only works to a very limited extent: I see my face dissolve and become grotesque but it is not replaced by a different face or faces and fades away altogether the moment I move my eyes. I can see a strange face but I don’t see the more exotic illusions many of Caputo’s experimental subjects did.

It could be a result of my vision loss. I don’t think I had tried the experiment before that occurred. There seem some evidence that the illusion depends on a steady visual fixation and perhaps I now flicker my eyes more that before to compensate for reduced peripheral vision. This may be connected with avoiding distractions like noise or being able to see the light source.

Or maybe something else is at work. When I was a student year ago a researcher at Imperial College London had a budget to pay student volunteers for a project on hypnotism. The pay was good – I got about a week’s rent just for the preliminary recruitment exercise – but I was more or less unhypnotizable and it was obvious, so I lost a a lucrative opportunity. I’d forgotten all about this until I tried the mirror experiment.

2. Over the ages many have peered (‘scryed’) into crystal balls, mirrors, pools of water, shiny stones, and so in the hope of discovering (‘descrying’) information about the future, or the present in distant places, or the past (who stole my goods?’). It’s unlikely they really discovered anything, but they surely saw images, as Caputo’s experimental subjects did, and interpreted them in a way that fitted what people around at the time them expected.

3. But when I look into my iPad then I do see the past and present. If Dr Dee were brought back to life he would surely admire my shew stone. It has a mineral heaviness and when I take its cover off the screen is at first dark. But then as it comes to life, vivid images appear, which seem to transcend time and space.

Next Experiment

The next in the series, 11/101 is ‘Seeing is Deceiving: Eyes Trump Ears”.





About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
This entry was posted in 101 experiments in seeing, Art and vision, The brain and visual perception and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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