Capgras Delusion

A relative of reduplicative paramnesia, it is the delusional belief that your loved ones have been replaced by look alike impostors.  The victims are otherwise completely coherent and lucid.  The delusion was first described in 1923 by the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras.

The illness is linked to damage to the part of the brain that connects vision to emotion.  The victims can recognize the features of the person they know, and they feel an emotional link to that person, but the image doesn’t stir that emotion because of the damage.  Ergo, they assume that this person must be an impostor.

Interestingly, because there is no damage to the part of the brain that links hearing to emotion, if they hear the voice of the loved one, they recognize it immediately.

In one of the most famous cases, a British man named Alan Davies suffered the delusion after a car accident and became convinced that his wife had been killed in the accident (the women living with him was an impostor).  He successfully sued the other driver for the same damages as if his wife had been killed because the anguish for him was the same.

The video above is the first half of a TED talk by neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, during which he discusses the delusion, as well as phantom limb syndrome and synesthesia.  It is certainly worth watching the whole thing.

Rivka Galchen, a very talented writer, wrote the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, which is a compelling psychological tale about a man who either suffers from Capgras or is truly being deceived.  She tipped me off to the Alan Davies story.

Additional Sources:

“Capgras Delusion: A Window On Face Recognition.” Trends in Cognitive Science.

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4 Responses to Capgras Delusion

  1. Those afflicted with a Schizoid illness can also develop Capgras symptoms without brain damage. That is why they call it a delusion instead of a syndrome. My wife was okay for 45 years and then had a psychotic break that ended up with full blown Schizoid Affective Disorder. Some years later she acquired the Delusion and I am the victim.

    • Michael Sclafani says:

      Thank you for taking the time to correct me on this, and I’m sorry to hear about your wife. I can only imagine how hard that is.

      • Unbelievably difficult. Had to raise a son and daughter by myself. It’s been 15 years of hell but Kathy has adapted somewhat to her illness. I have learned how to handle the craziness–adapted myself to the situation. Took two years of psychiatric treatment before I concluded that there was no cure and she would never get better. She was the love of my life–a good wife, mother and great intensive care registered nurse. I still care for her but her life, as I knew it, ended many years ago. She is not the same person I married. I feel sad for her but can do nothing. My daughter got married this last weekend and we had to keep the ceremony a secret from Kathy so that she wouldn’t create a disturbance, if on the slim possibility she might have come. But she wouldn’t have been able to come anyway, as she cannot deal with crowds. She missed my son’s wedding too and their graduations from college. But she has taken to my new grandaughter. She is still very smart. Drives, cooks, shops, does cross words and seduko. Just that her mind does not function normally. We live in a ranch house and our quarters are seperated and we have very little communication. The less the better. Thank God for that.

  2. […] is believed to be related to Capgras Syndrome, in that they both deal with the part of the brain that links facial recognition to emotion.  It […]

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