Gazing in the mirror can make you feel good

OSAKA, Japan — For many people, looking at themselves in the mirror may not feel very rewarding, especially those who are more critical of their appearance. However, according to a recent study, staring in the mirror may actually be rewarding on a mental level.

Researchers in Japan say the human brain can naturally, and remarkably, identify our faces subconsciously. That is, without thinking about it, we tend to pick ourselves out of pictures (and even reflections), specifically focusing on our facial characteristics. The team from Osaka University believe they have determined the reasoning behind this quick self-identification and why people look at themselves so frequently.

When it comes to distinguishing our own faces from others, the hypothalamus releases dopamine. Known as the “feel-good hormone,” this neurotransmitter helps to stimulate motivation and the feeling of reward. Scientists discovered the stimulation of this reward circuit when individuals deciphered their own faces in a subliminal manner.

“We are better at recognizing our own face compared to faces of others, even when the information is delivered subliminally,” says lead author Chisa Ota in a university release. “However, little is known about whether this advantage involves the same brain or different areas that are activated by supraliminal presentation of our face.”

Which brain areas react to seeing your face?

Researchers either flashed pictures that included the person’s face or outlines that resembled their own facial features, as well as pictures of faces containing altered characteristics. The team also looked at the brain’s response toward pictures of faces containing altered characteristics. As a control, study authors showed each participant images of strangers as well. They then examined neural activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This enabled the team to determine any variations induced by the “hidden” images.

The hidden images of their own faces subconsciously stimulated several brain areas, including those that interpret facial information. The amygdala, a tiny region inferior to the hypothalamus, displayed more activity when participants looked at their own faces subconsciously. This area of the brain links fear with emotions and survival instincts however, it may also connect emotions to memories. This study revealed that the amygdala remained active anytime the person recognized their own face, regardless of the transformed images.

“The results provided us with new insights regarding the neural mechanisms of the self-face advantage,” adds senior author Tamami Nakano. “We found that activation in the ventral tegmental area, which is a central component of the dopamine reward pathway, was stronger for subliminal presentations of the participant’s face compared with faces of others.”

Looking in a mirror differs from seeing a picture

This study also revealed that our brain reacts in a different manner depending on whether we see our own face consciously or subconsciously. This means, either different areas of the brain are activating or the same area uses different functioning mechanisms when we purposely stare in the mirror compared to if we happen to see our face in a group picture without being fully aware. The team plans to continue their search to determine the exact mechanism behind this difference.

“Our findings indicate that the dopamine reward pathway is involved in enhanced processing of one’s own face even when the information is subliminal,” Nakano concludes. “Furthermore, discrimination of one’s own face from those of others appear to rely on the information of facial parts.”

Although the manner in which the brain processes these subliminal images is not entirely clear, researchers believe they now know the areas in which this occurs. This gives scientists a jumping-off point for this kind of research. For one, this discovery may have relevance in the manipulation of self-motivation, since the dopamine network has a direct connection in the perception of subconscious self-facial images. Furthermore, the amygdala’s involvement indicates a connection between emotions and self-image – ergo the reason we stare in the mirror!

The study appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex.