You may and may not have heard of Capgras Syndrome. It’s weird and morbid consequences have made it appealing to medical dramas and comedies including Scrubs, Perception and Grey’s Anatomy. People with this disorder can see everything perfectly well, but the problem is that they don’t always believe what they see. In this disorder, the emotional component of recognising people is damaged. Sufferers will see their friends but won’t experience the usual rush of emotion associated with that person; instead they’ll feel nothing. Since this doesn’t make sense to them they come to one, very logical conclusion – that the person they are looking at is a fake.

They think they are surrounded by clones, robots or aliens or have travelled to a parallel universe.

In some cases they think they are surrounded by clones, robots or aliens or have travelled to a parallel universe – that their family and friends have disappeared and now they are surrounded by imposters. They may believe people that they don’t have an emotional connection with, such as doctors and nurses or very casual acquaintances are their true friends or family. However, sometimes spending too long with these people can cause the same thing to happen, and this can also lead to a succession of imposters. In one case a woman claimed she’d had 80 husbands; as soon as she started feeling anything for the current imposter, he’d disappear and a new one would emerge.

In one case a woman claimed she’d had 80 husbands; as soon as she started feeling anything for the current imposter, he’d disappear and a new one would emerge.

Interestingly, the syndrome seems to only affect most patients when looking at a person. Hearing the voice without seeing their friends and family can still elicit an emotional response, and indeed often other emotional components are intact too. There have been cases of blind Capgras patients where the voice no longer elicits an emotional response, but sometimes touching the person did – often it seems to affect the emotional connection with one sense only.

Although it should be noted that Capgras Syndrome can be caused by paranoid schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disorders that obviously affect multiple systems, enough people have developed this disorder after brain injury or stroke for scientists to be pretty sure of what’s going on. The cause however, is less clear. Some scientists think it’s a loss of the emotional circuitry alone, whereas others believe it could also include issues with memory; rather than accessing memories of the person when seen, the brain is instead ‘creating new files’ so the old emotions are never felt.

Sian Lyons 

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Image: tgkrause via Flickr 

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