Learning from the mirror

In ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ W. Timothy Gallwey describes a scene, in which a player asks him, the author who worked as a tennis coach at the time, to improve his (the player’s) backhand. The player clearly knows the problem, but can’t fix it. Gallwey agrees on the problem and tries to help him not by giving him instructions, but by asking the player to do some backhand swings and view himself in the reflection of a windowpane. Without any instructions, the player sees himself, fully understands what he is doing for the first time, and quickly fixes the problem with his backhand.

What I find interesting about this story is that the player needed to see himself from a different perspective to correct his mistake. In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying how we make sense of our bodies and in studying body ownership they have made some interesting discoveries regarding the perspective from which we see our body, and the special case of mirrors.

It might seem like odd to view your body from different perspectives, such as from the perspective of someone else, and in every day life this only happens if you look into a mirror or see video footage of yourself. We usually view our body from our own eyes. But in a lab, using virtual reality goggles connected to film cameras, it is possible to do many things that would otherwise not be possible: view yourself from someone else’s perspective, such as in a study where two people shook hands while seeing what the other person saw, effectively shaking their own hand (Petkova & Ehrsson, 2008); we can also give people other bodies, such as a slimmer or fatter one (Preston & Ehrsson, 2014); we can even induce an out of-body experience by inducing a full-body illusion from the regular perspective and then moving the camera away from the person’s body, until they view themselves from a different perspective (Ehrsson, 2007).

While all of this is possible it is not possible to make someone feel like they own a body that they don’t see from a first-person perspective. In fact, showing people a body from a third person perspective is used as a control condition because it just doesn’t work – if you view a body from the third person perspective you can’t feel like you own that body. There is one exception though: viewing a body in the mirror.

Viewing a body in the mirror is an odd thing: from childhood on we have learnt that this is us, but we see ourselves from a third person perspective (our right hand for example looks like a left hand in the mirror). And maybe it is precisely because of this life-long learning that we can induce a full-body illusion from the third person perspective if that body is shown in a mirror (Preston et al., 2015). Which brings me back to the initial story about learning by watching your own reflection.

In the initial story about tennis, the player learnt about his mistakes by watching himself swing a backhand in a windowpane, which acted as a mirror. In effect, he was viewing himself from a third person perspective, but one in which he still felt like it was him and he owned the body. My question now is this: could this be a more general idea for people who need to learn motor skills, such as athletes or musicians?

The idea is this: when you want to learn something and you’re stuck in something you can’t improve, try placing a mirror such that you can see yourself do whatever it is you’re doing. This might help you get more of a third person perspective on what you’re doing (similar to a teacher), but you still feel like it’s you doing. You could of course just record what you’re doing, but this would suffer from two problems: 1) you’re not seeing yourself while doing what you want to improve, so any feedback is quite delayed and thereby less effective and 2) you don’t feel like you own the body because it’s offline and you’re seeing yourself from a third person perspective. Not that this is necessarily bad, getting a completely detached image of what you’re doing might be equally educational, but I think using a mirror might be even more effective: see yourself do something while you’re doing it, not from your regular perspective, but from the perspective of someone else, all while you feel that it’s still your body.

Will viewing yourself in a mirror really make you a much better athlete or musician? I have no idea, I’m not aware of any studies on the matter. But I think it’s worth a try, if only because it’s easy and, if you have a mirror, for free. All you need is a mirror (or any kind of reflective surface) and the possibility of placing it such that you can see yourself while doing what you want to improve. I have no idea if this would work, but it’s worth a try.



Ehrsson, H. H. (2007). The experimental induction of out-of-body experiences. Science, 317(5841), 1048-1048.

Gallwey, T. W. (2015). Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance.

Petkova, V. I., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2008). If I were you: perceptual illusion of body swapping. PloS one, 3(12), e3832.

Preston, C., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2014). Illusory changes in body size modulate body satisfaction in a way that is related to non-clinical eating disorder psychopathology. PloS one, 9(1), e85773.

Preston, C., Kuper-Smith, B. J., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2015). Owning the body in the mirror: The effect of visual perspective and mirror view on the full-body illusion. Scientific reports, 5, 18345.

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