The Troxler Effect

“And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
– Freidrich Nietzsche

For those of you who’ve managed to secure a spot and join us on one of our public investigation events (in particular, The Pumphouse Theatre backstage makeup room) you may have taken part in an exercise which we commonly refer to as either “Scrying” or simply “The mirror experiment”.

In this exercise, participants line up and take a seat in front of the long wall of mirrors and simply sit and focus on a point on their face (usually the forehead, bridge of the nose, or tip of the nose) with as little as a dim torchlight to ever-so-slightly illuminate the room. Many participants often make an immediate connection to the “Bloody Mary” urban legend or reference films like “The Candyman”, both of which involve staring into a mirror (usually dimly lit by candlelight) and chanting the name of the character three times to invoke the spirit into reality and appear in the mirror before them.

It can take mere seconds before the illusion begins for most participants, and I’ll usually have each group sit for roughly five to ten minutes to take in the full experience and describe back to me exactly what it is that they can or cannot see.

Even though we look into mirrors daily, it’s almost as if we do it on autopilot and think nothing of it. We know that person, we trust that person, and we hope that’s a sensation that’ll never change.

That’s until you try it on a more conscious level in a dimly lit room, something that’s not at all a common or natural thing to do – especially with the promise that your appearance is likely to change.

How does rapid ageing sound? Face melting? Or how does your facial features completely disappearing sound?

These are all symptoms of the above exercise, more correctly known as the Troxler Effect

The Troxler Effect was discovered in 1804 by Swiss physician and philosopher named Ignaz Troxler. It is this effect that underlies many of the optical illusions you can find on the Internet. Stare at a red dot in the middle of a circle for long enough, and the outside circle will fade away and disappear. This is because your brain has deemed the outer edges irrelevant, and it has lessened its processing burden by simply fading it out of our perceptual domain.

Very similar to the shallow depth of field produced in a camera focused tightly on a singular object, our brains tend to fade out features we aren’t directly staring at and blend them with the surrounding environment.

Interestingly, the Troxler Effect has been attributed to the adaptation of neurons vital for perceiving stimuli in the visual system. It is part of the general principle in sensory systems that unvarying stimuli soon disappear from our awareness. For example, if a small piece of paper is dropped on the inside of one’s forearm, it is felt for a short period. Soon, however, the sensation fades away. This is because the tactile neurons have adapted and start to ignore the unimportant stimulus. But if one jiggles one’s arm up and down, giving varying stimulation, one will continue to feel the paper.

So how does this exercise relate to the paranormal field?

Well aside from the clear link and logical reasoning behind scrying rituals and urban legends and media such as Bloody Mary and the Candyman, the exercise is also a good example of how the brain can deceive us. Much like the pareidolia phenomenon has a way of making us look for humanistic features in everyday inanimate objects, the Troxler phenomenon has a way of taking away details that are deemed unimportant. It’s the ultimate tunnel vision!

For a paranormal researcher this can be quite taxing when reviewing video footage – imagine reviewing hours-worth of static footage of a stair well or hallway and have the surrounding environment outside the centre of the image appear to distort, or maybe a shadow or object may appear to move. But more importantly on location, when we’re sitting in the dark with nothing but a torch, watching and waiting – maybe we’ll notice something we didn’t before, or the environment may appear to be slightly different if there were details that our brain had otherwise determined to be irrelevant

So, have you tried this exercise before? Tell us how about your experience in the comments.

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