In his 1983 fake documentary 'Zelig', Woody Allen 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 is shaped by his environment - a behavioural style that began after cardiac arrest caused damage to the frontal and temporal lobes 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 believable accounts 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, AD quickly assumed the role of head cook, and said he had to concoct special meals for diabetic patients. He maintains these roles until the situation changes. However, he didn't take on the part of a 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.
UPDATE: Rumour has it that this blog posting inspired the Mirror Mirror episode of House.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.