From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Brain damage turns man into human chameleon

In his 1983 fake documentary ‘Zelig’, Woody Alan plays a character,
Leonard Zelig, a kind of human chameleon who takes on the appearance
and behaviour of whoever he is with. Now psychologists in Italy have
reported the real-life case of AD, a 65-year-old whose identity
appears dependent on the environment he is in. He started behaving
this way after cardiac arrest caused damage to the fronto-temporal
region of his brain.

When with doctors, AD assumes the role of a doctor; when with
psychologists he says he is a psychologist; at the solicitors he
claims to be a solicitor. AD doesn’t just make these claims, he
actually plays the roles and provides plausible stories for how he
came to be in these roles.

To investigate further, Giovannina Conchiglia and colleagues used
actors to contrive different scenarios. At a bar, an actor asked AD
for a cocktail, prompting him to immediately fulfil the role of bar-
tender, claiming that he was on a two-week trial hoping to gain a
permanent position. Taken to the hospital kitchen for 40 minutes, AD
quickly assumed the role of head chef, and claimed responsibility for
preparing special menus for diabetic patients. He maintains these
roles until the situation changes. However, he didn’t adopt the role
of laundry worker at the hospital laundry, perhaps because it was too
far out of keeping with his real-life career as a politician.

AD’s condition is a form of disinhibition, but it appears distinct
from other well-known disinhibition syndromes such as utilisation
behaviour, in which patients can’t help themselves from using any
objects or food in the vicinity. For example, AD didn’t touch anything
in the hospital kitchen.

His tendency to switch roles is exacerbated by anterograde amnesia (a
loss of memory for events since his cardiac arrest) and anosognosia –
a lack of insight into his strange behaviour.

“AD seems to have lost the capacity to keep his own identity constant,
as he adapts himself excessively to variations in the social contexts,
violating his own identity connotations in order to favour a role
which the environment proposes”, the researchers said.

Conchiglia, G., Rocca, G.D. & Grossi, D. (2007). On a peculiar
environmental dependency syndrome in a case with frontal-temporal
damage: Zelig-like syndrome. Neurocase, iFirst, 1-5.

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