The power of illusion: What I’ve learned from the inverted filter

Image of man seeing reflection in mirror
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Last year, to fulfill my philosophy and values breadth requirement, I took a class on Eastern Buddhist philosophy. The ideas taught in the course were so abstract and different from the empirical, research-driven nature of my other classes, that I found them quite difficult to grasp. Looking back at my reading notes, terms such as “ultimate truth” and “the self is a fiction” are strewn across the pages, followed by my feeble attempts to explain them. 

During every 50-minute class period, I would begin to consider the possibility that the world is an illusion, that reality and fiction are one and the same and that everything I know to be true could ultimately be called into question. However, as soon as class ended, I immediately went back to worrying about my next midterm, about whether I looked bloated in my jeans or about why someone had left me on read. When real life kicked in, it seemed as if those theories had little practical relevance outside of academic discussion or “deep conversations.” At the end of the day, the notion that I couldn’t trust my senses — that there was something more to reality beyond what I was perceiving — just did not seem plausible.

I came across something that made me rethink that conclusion: the inverted filter. Of all things, this infamous TikTok filter is what made me realize that maybe the Buddhists were right — things may not always be what they seem. The inverted filter works by flipping the image that you see of yourself, showing you what you actually look like, rather than your reflection. When people found out that their inverted image is how they appear to others in real life, there was considerable outcry on social media. I was also among the many devastated by the news. When I first used the filter, I immediately turned into one of the most hideous creatures to have ever walked the earth. The glaring asymmetry of my face suddenly became visible to me; one of my eyes was smaller than the other, my nose was crooked and my mouth was horribly lopsided. I couldn’t believe that that’s how everyone else had seen me my whole life.

However, no matter how much I brought it up to my family and friends, they had no idea what I was talking about. To them, I looked normal in the inverted pictures, even good. It didn’t make any sense to me. Were we even looking at the same picture? How did something that looked so horribly abnormal to me look perfectly normal to someone else?

I did some more research on the issue and found the answer. The reason we think we look bad inverted is that for our entire lives, we’ve only ever looked at ourselves in the mirror, which shows us our reflection. We’re so used to seeing our reflected image that it’s jarring when it’s flipped. To me, I looked like a completely different person. But to everyone else, I looked normal, because that was what they saw every day. 

This revelation about the inverted filter and what I really look like seems trivial, even narcissistic. But it has finally shown me the practical applications of Buddhist teachings. I’ve realized that I cannot be certain of what I know, because even the things I thought I knew so well, like my own appearance, are very different from the perspective of someone else. It has shown me that my construction of reality is based on my perception of it, and that my perception can sometimes delude me. To quote from my own notes, which hadn’t made sense at the time, “The object that we experience may be significantly different from the object itself. However, we have no way of knowing its true form, because attempting to do so would mean using the very cognition that distorts it.”

I still do not know what these revelations mean for my daily life. I do not know if there is an “ultimate truth” or if “the self” really is “a fiction.” However, what I do know is that I’ll question the things that I think I know — about myself, about others and about the world. I’ll think twice before I accept something that I see or hear at face value, because things are often not what they seem. 

Contact Saamya Mungamuru at [email protected].