Bloody Mary, and Why We Think We See Things in Mirrors

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As a child, one of the surest ways to prove your courage to all the other kids at the slumber party was to march into a dimly lit room (it was almost always a bathroom, for some reason), stare at your face in the mirror, and repeat the words Bloody Mary 13 times. According to legend, a woman would suddenly appear in the mirror and scratch your face off—or perhaps even kill you. Different iterations of this game exist around the world; alternate versions say the mysterious mirror woman goes by Mary Worth or Kathy, and in another version, the devil himself makes an appearance.

Of course, no ghosts or demons ever actually appeared, but that didn't stop us from running out of the bathroom screaming, convinced that we saw a twisted or bloodied face looking back at us. Even as adults, our minds sometimes play tricks on us. We may get spooked after thinking we see something in the mirror while getting ready for work or brushing our teeth, even though we are rational beings and understand that nothing is there.

It turns out there's a perfectly logical explanation for this. The longer you stare in a mirror, the more likely you are to start seeing things that aren't there—even if you haven't been forewarned that something ghastly will appear. This is partly due to a phenomenon called the Troxler effect. When you stare at the same object for a prolonged period of time, there comes a point when your brain adapts or gets used to unchanging stimuli. As a result, your neurons cancel the information out, and the image often appears blurry, faded, or distorted until you blink or look around.

Likewise, if you gaze into your own eyes in front of a mirror, your whole face will start to look strange if you look long enough. You can try this optical illusion out for yourself—no mirror needed. Stare at the plus sign in the center of the image below for seven or eight seconds.

Did the colorful blotches fade to gray? This is just one of the many ways your brain can trick you and distort your vision. It's actually an important coping mechanism, though. As Live Science puts it, "If you couldn't ignore the steady hum of your computer monitor, the constant smell of your own body odor or the nose jutting out in front of your face, you'd never be able to focus on the important things—like whether your boss is standing right behind you."

Another part of the phenomenon is the recently described “strange face in the mirror” illusion. Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo conducted an experiment in 2010 in which people were asked to enter a dimly lit room and look at their reflection in the mirror for 10 minutes. Afterwards, they were asked to report what they saw. Of the 50 test subjects, 66 percent reported seeing "huge deformations" of their face, and 48 percent also saw "fantastical and monstrous beings." Others described seeing the face of a parent (some of whom were deceased), the face of an animal, or the face of an old woman or child.

Humans in general have a remarkable ability to see faces in everyday objects—from clouds to trees to pieces of toast—so it makes sense that dim lighting and visual tricks would cause people to see another face of some kind. In addition, when an image is distorted, your brain draws from past experiences and expectations to fill in the gaps. Hence the dead relatives.

Interestingly, the same effect "can also be obtained during eye-to-eye gazing between two individuals," Caputo tells Mental Floss. In fact, this "inter-subjective gazing" produced an even higher number of "strange faces" seen by test subjects, according to another experiment conducted by Caputo in 2013.

So we've ruled out the presence of mirror monsters, but what about Bloody Mary? The origin of this particular mirror game would seem to be related to "Bloody" Mary I, who served as Queen of England in the 16th century—but folklorists are unconvinced.

That the figure goes by multiple names—such as Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Lou, etc.—suggests against a real person as the inspiration. Psychoanalysts have proposed that the game has to do with young girls and the onset of menstruation. Others have noted earlier analogues of the game, including a Robert Burns poem where he explained that if you "[t]ake a candle, and go alone to a looking glass; eat an apple before it; and some traditions say, you should comb your hair all the time," you'll see over your shoulder the face of the person you'll marry (and some psychoanalysts have even proposed an importance of the homophone Mary/marry). But as far as we know, no one has ever actually appeared in a mirror to confirm what—or who—Bloody Mary is about.

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
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As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
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The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
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The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
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Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
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The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

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takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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