The Compassion-Passion Machine

The following is an excerpt of a new Online Exclusive. Read the full piece on Believermag.com.

CAN A CARDBOARD BOX GENERATE EMPATHY BETWEEN TWO STRANGERS? CAN IT HELP THEM TO FALL IN LOVE?

DISCUSSED: Womb Twins, An Affection for Shiny Things, Shared Identities, Circus-Contortionist Grandmothers, Dutch Jungians, The Technological Scarring of the Real World, A Futuristic Darth Vader Feel, Michael Stipe

Jon and a stranger got inside the box and faced each other on either side of the two-way mirror. The box covered their heads, necks, and upper shoulders. Jon and the stranger established eye contact. During a preprogrammed four-minute sequence, LED lights inside the chambers faded in and out, blending their faces from right to left and back again on the surface of the glass. When the light on Jon’s side was brighter, he saw more of himself and less of the stranger. When his light was weaker, his face became obscured by the stranger’s face on the other side of the mirror.

Jon stayed in the box as a series of new strangers replaced one another on the other side of the mirror. Finally, Megan Daalder took a turn. Megan invented the Mirrorbox, which, before settling on a final title, she had called “the Soul Collider” and “the Empathy Accumulator.”

Jon saw his face illuminated and then gradually become Megan’s face. In the middle of the four-minute sequence, he saw the left side of his face blending with the right side of hers. The two became one person. Jon experienced the whole gamut of emotions, he claims, and then the box went black.

Jon filled out a survey afterward, which contained questions about how much he identified with animals, whether he gets called “sensitive,” and if he experienced any aftereffects from the box. He does identify with animals, he does get called sensitive, and when he left the box, he was in love—whether with the box or with Megan, he wasn’t sure.

Jon wondered how real his feelings were. He had felt so connected, so loved, but would those feelings continue to exist outside the box? Was it real love or just a substitute manufactured by the machine? Could art create the real thing?

Soon thereafter, Jon invited John Houx—a fair-skinned folk singer with full lips and a powerful voice—to Megan’s house to experience the Mirrorbox with her. Houx says meeting Megan was like meeting Doc Brown from Back to the Future. She looked like a wacky scientist, albeit one wearing a blue and white dress. Megan’s physical appearance is striking: she is especially tall; her shoulders are broad and angular; her arms are sinewy and muscular; her eyes are piercing and multicolored (mostly blue, but yellow, too). Then there are her outfits, which are works of art in themselves.

At first Houx felt self-conscious; he wondered what his face looked like to Megan. Unease gave way to giggling. And then he feelings deepened. “I rolled further down into the unconscious, where it became sort of primal,” Houx recounted to me. He and Megan grunted, made funny faces, and mimicked each other’s movements. They sang long notes and improvised songs. When the four-minute cycle ended, Megan reached for the switch and reset it.

“At the end of each cycle it became more and more compelling to continue,” Houx said. “I couldn’t imagine leaving this little world.” Outside was an unlimited universe of people and things. Why go back to the abyss when you could play with your twin in the womb?

“You created a love machine,” Houx told Megan when they exited the box, nearly an hour later. “You put any two people in here, and sooner or later, they’re going feel nothing but love.” Though he is unsure if he would still identify with Megan with the same intensity, the Mirrorbox has had long-lasting effects on his worldview. “Now I can walk down the street and look at people’s faces, people from all over the world, and see myself in everyone: kids, old people, men, women.”

Megan agrees. “I think it’s a demonstration of a universal principle, as cheesy as it sounds, that everyone can love each other. It allows you to feel love through a physical process very quickly,” she said. In fact, according to a lecture called “What Is This Thing Called Love?” by sexual behavior expert Dr. Glenn Wilson, “scientific studies prove that adopting a mutual gaze with a stranger, combined with self-disclosure, may generate love in the laboratory. But unlike regular eye contact, the Mirrorbox projects the viewer’s face onto the face of the other. Is the viewer experiencing love for a stranger, or are they falling more deeply in love with their own reflection? Or are they in love with the amalgamated “third” person in the mirror?

Photo courtesy Megan Daalder.

Read the full piece on Believermag.com.

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