The idea of simulacrum, or impostors, has long been a subject of fascination in fiction, and Capgras syndrome, or variations on its symptoms, often crop up in short stories and novels. Most recently, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers revolves around a character who suffers from Capgras syndrome after he suffers a head injury in a car accident.
While the unreliable narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances is constantly evaluating and analyzing himself, he does so with increasingly suspect reasoning, and never touches on the obvious psychological cause for his belief that his wife has been replaced by an impostor.
Capgras syndrome, or Capgras delusion is a rare disorder in which the afflicted person recognizes all the physical features of another human being, usually a family member or close friend, but believes that the person they're seeing is an identical impostor. The French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras first described the disease in 1923, after treating a Madame M. who believed her entire family had been replaced by impostors. In some cases, the person believes that he is himself a double, or that a limb or other part of their body has been replaced by an identical part.
While it sounds like a paranoid disorder, it can present itself without any other delusional beliefs - the individual is simply at a loss and cannot be convinced. The afflicted individual usually acknowledges the preposterous nature of their perception, but cannot reconcile the person they see with the person they know. As strongly as you know your mother is your mother or your husband is your husband, a person suffering from Capgras knows that the person before them is not the person they're pretending to be. They often believe that the impostor is a benign figure, perhaps even unaware that they are an impostor.
Capgras syndrome is most often diagnosed as a symptom of a larger disorder or condition, such as schizophrenia, dementia, or a head injury. An early hypothesis suggests that it was caused by the same impairment that causes prosopagnosia, a condition that renders a person unable to consciously recognize faces. A patient suffering from prosopagnosia produces an unconscious emotional response to the image of a face, but exhibits no conscious recognition. Thus, it has been hypothesized that Capgras syndrome could result from the opposite of prosopagnosia, as the individual consciously recognizes faces, but exhibits no emotional response, either conscious or subconscious. Scientists have also hypothesized that the syndrome results from a disconnect between the temporal cortex, where faces are recognized, and the limbic system, which supports emotions. Other research suggests that this disconnect must be accompanied by some impairment in reasoning, or some other secondary factor that would transform it from a simple disconnect into a delusion.
Psychoanalysts have interpreted Capgras as a form of displacement in which the patient creates a double for their loved one so that they may be safely rejected when negative feelings or attributes arise, helping him or her to negotiate changes in close relationships without guilt.
This article was originally published in July 2008, and has been updated for the
April 2009 paperback release.
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