Friday, July 24, 2009


Can you wiggle your ears? I don't mean wriggling or waggling, but wiggling: moving the ears backwards and forwards. It involves operating the latent muscles of the ears. It has nothing to do with earwigs, though if one of those insects got into your inner ear and applied its forceps your ears might start waggling and wriggling.

Earwiggling is a skill that can be learned. One person recently asked publicly for help in wiggling one ear singly, not both together, a feat he is already able to perform.

In order to wiggle one ear at a time, more practice is needed in front of a mirror. That is where I learned the art (when I was a boy, ever fearful that the Devil would appear over my shoulder, as my mother threatened would happen to children who gazed at their own reflection too long). By grinning forcefully and widely the ears are made to move, and you can then concentrate on consciously finding the muscles that move the ears, and control them without the mouth grimace (and manipulate them without using your hands). You command the left ear to move alone, and then the right ear.

What use does this skill have? It impressed teenage girls, up to a point, and a by-product was the smoothing of wrinkles on my forehead, but this made me look too young to be taken seriously by them.

A heavily edited version of this appeared in NEW SCIENTIST (17 April 2010, No 2756, inside back cover); they deleted the reference to my mother, even though she was English; they struck out the Devil (as being an unscientific non-phenomenon, I suppose), and omitted the reason why I was not attractive to girls 60 years ago (I trust that situation will change, now I look older).

(4th of December 2013)
Editors can be annoying people. As noted above, an editor deleted my reference to a devil looking over a person's shoulder when they spend too much time gazing at their own reflection in a mirror.

Now they are saying it is true! In an article by Douglas Heaven (What the Hell?!) "a features editor at New Scientist", the phenomenon ("the Caputo illusion") is described, and his own ten-minute experiment with it is reported: the experience began with an image of an old man and ended with an apparition of "a grotesque, gargoyle-like creature".

This illusion may have been known in folklore for thousands of years; my mother (born and bred in Hull in Yorkshire) apparently knew about it. One example: "Ancient Greek depictions of Dionysian rituals" show "initiates gazing into mirrors", perhaps seeking contact with the spirit world.

Giovanni Caputo, a psychologist at the University of Urbino in Italy, made a chance discovery of the illusion in the recent past, in the course of research on self-identity. He set up a space entirely  enclosed by mirrors, in which volunteers could confront multiple reflections of themselves; when he tried this himself in semi-darkness, the weird faces appeared. It is a way of inducing "dissociation", with such symptoms as a "sense of physical detachment and a distorted perception of the passing of time". He has used this as "reflective therapy", and schizophrenic patients have found it "helpful to see the face of a personality they had internalised".

The same effects can be achieved by looking at another person's face for a while, and I have just had a flashback of being in the dark with my Helen, before we were married, gazing into her eyes and suddenly seeing her features distorted.

The article is "Mirror, mirror", New Scientist, No 2941, 2 November 2013, 39-41, and subscribers (not applicable to me, even though I purchase it every week) can see more "ghoulish illusions" and get additional information here:

Brian Colless

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