The Narcissus Syndrome Revisited

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Marshall McLuhan in chapter four of his seminal book: Understanding Media tells us that the technologies we invent and use daily have, by themselves and in themselves, regardless of their content, certain effects on our nervous system.

In this chapter McLuhan makes a comparison of the effects of media with what happened to the Greek youth Narcissus as he was being hypnotized by his own reflection in a pond, and I quote: « The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any medium (material) other than themselves…The wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had different feelings had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensively technological, therefore narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus.»

The reader is reminded that McLuhan is describing here what all media do to our central nervous system, our brain and of course to our mind.

To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it…It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.»

McLuhan’s thesis is really quite simple: The development of our western civilization was fueled by three major inventions whose subliminal effects were undetected by even the brightest and the smartest. First there was the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which drove us into the left hemisphere of our brain. The second was print, which accelerated the process by driving us further into the left-brain way of experiencing the world. And finally the third invention, the telegraph which heralded the actual electronic revolution and brought us back into the right hemisphere of our brain. Ironically, and I find that rather hilarious myself, McLuhan, himself victim of the Narcissus syndrome, overlooked one very important technology: the omnipresent-invisible mirror. Mirrors have been with mankind for a very long time; mirrors made of polished obsidian were found in the graves of some Stone Age people. One might wonder where they got the technology to do the polishing in the first place.

Actually, I deeply believe that the Greek myth of Narcissus was trying to warn us about the subliminal effects of the mirror: narcosis or numbing. Obviously the mesmerizing power of mirrors is so pernicious that it even escaped the scrutiny of McLuhan who uses the myth of Narcissus to warn us about what technologies do to our nervous system. Well, the mirror has not escaped my scrutiny nor will it escape yours after I explain what follows. At this point I will ask the reader to go back to the beginning of my essay and change: «The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person»…for: The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the MIRROR for another person, and voila, Bingo! Now we know mirrors are affecting us. THEY MAKE US NUMB. At this point I recommend that the reader should read for herself chapter four of McLuhan’s Understanding Media for more details.

What happens when we look into the mirror? I use the word «into» not «at» because when facing a mirror we see our «reverted» image in an imaginary dimension and totally forget that between our image and ourselves there is a mirror there. The face you are looking at is not your face, it is a reversed face. The left side of your face has become the right face of the «dummy» you are facing. You might think: no big deal. But there is a catch. Your right brain has the ability to read and understand faces. There is a lot to be read in a person’s face, it tells us a lot about that person. But when you look at your face in the mirror, your right brain cannot read it since it is reverted. Try and read a book in front of a mirror you will see what I mean. That face exists solely in your mind, nobody else sees it. Therefore you are going around with a false image of yourself but other people see someone else and they react to the face you hardly ever see for what it shows.

According to the myth of Narcissus your nervous system reacts by numbing or by autoamputating the offending image that you embrace so lovingly every day of your life, many times a day even. Mirrors are addictives devices, the more you use them the number you become. In other words you lose contact with a part of yourself and with reality.

Now that you understand that the low-tech mirror is robbing you of some important part or/and function of your nervous system can you claim it back? Yes you can, and the answer will amaze you for it’s extreme simplicity.

Go to your bathroom mirror, take a piece of tissue paper the size of you small fingernail, put some saliva on one side and stick it on the mirror so that when you look at «the» face in it the white dot appears to be located at about ¼ inch above the base of your nose. Standing up, arms at your sides, start focusing on the white dot with your eyes; at the same time, with your mind, observe what you are feeling inside your body. Scan your body from head to toe. Try to feel the energy in your body. Do this for about one minute. This has the effect of balancing both the cerebral hemispheres.

I am mot going to tell you what happens when you do the dot in the mirror thing, because I have shown this trick to hundreds of people over the past twenty years and their comments vary. For this reason I do not want you to have any preconceived idea about what should happen. However I can tell you that the most comment I got is: «I felt as if a big load has been removed from my shoulders.»

In doing this exercise, you automatically demesmerize yourself from the mirror and you reintegrate into your body the energy you were wasting on keeping your illusory self alive. Your false image is an usurper that needs to be flushed from your brain. So, kiss your «doppelganger» good bye and do the dot in the mirror thing. The proof is in the pudding; don’t believe or disbelieve me, try it for yourself. In the future try to remember that mirrors alienate you from your authentic self. By knowing your own energies, when you are in the vicinity of other individuals you will be able to discriminate between which are yours and which are not. This is a major skill to develop if one wants to survive in the Acoustic Space of the Global Village. Like Dorothy said:«Toto, We’re not in Kansas anymore».

And now, after you’ve done the mirror thing and zapped your «doppelganger» out of existence, I would like to invite the reader to click HERE and I will show you how to replace it with a more authentic and realistic one. In the meantime just remember that whenever you are facing a mirror you are at risk of being sucked in it and become the servomechanism of your mirror image.                           




"Few animals realize
that their mirror image is an illusion".
Martin Gardner

"The image man has of himself is his limit."
Saint Exupery