Brain damage turns man into human chameleon

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.

31 thoughts on “Brain damage turns man into human chameleon”

  1. When in the laundry he didn’t adopt the identity of a laundry worker – that points to an ability to choose and thereby gives rise to the facade of a lonely old man who just wants attention and is intelligent enough to entertain psychologists in order to get it.

  2. As I read this story, I felt the strange urge to be a person who takes on the characteristics of whomever was around me…

  3. I posted this on reddit…but…What if someone tells him “I’m you”.

  4. It would likely become obvious before long if one was only pretending to be a doctor or chef. Patients would die and the food would be terrible. But who’s to say he’s not just pretending to be a politician too? Or maybe there’s no discernable difference anyway, After all, in what other field would incompetence be so popular?

  5. Probably the most important detail is the fact that the guy is/was a POLITICIAN. This would have him primed for that type of behavior—glad-handing people, acting all buddy-buddy, “I’m one of *you*!”Maybe the brain damage knocked out the inhibitions that normally tell him to quite acting like a politician, so went into liar-hyperdrive.I think they should start doing more research into the brains of politicians. I’m sure there are some interesting correlations they’d find, because what good, honest person would ever want that job in the first place? It must attract liars & BSers.

  6. I think it would be awesomely interesting to get a bunch of people like this into a room together, what would happen? All manner of hilarity i’m sure! Ahhh, making fun of brain damage, such a good start to the morning 🙂

  7. Isn’t it interesting that when someone, by whatever cause, shows themselves to be a true empath that few can accept such an alternate perceiver and have to define their condition as a lack of ability, rather that a distinct and valuable ability, that of being able to truly be in anothers shoes? Would that more of us might truly experience that which others do. It would change the world.

  8. Chameleons change color expressing their emotions – NOT to blend with environment. Arctic fox is a much better example of blending.

  9. Just as Richard Dawkins said, every new scientific discovery makes one wonder at nature and be in awe of it. We don’t need miracles for it.

  10. I’m no PhD, but it occurs to me that this behavior in this particular individual didn’t just happen because of the damage to the fronto-temporal region. He’s a politician by trade, correct?Which means that even before the heart attack, chances are he’s a personality type which is pre-disposed to fitting in with the group, with ANY group, that he finds himself in. If you watch how politicians work, for example someone like Bill Clinton, they build empathy and make people like them, in either a one on one or group situation, by taking on certain characteristics of the group or individual.Clinton is a master of this. If he’s taller than you, as he approaches to shake your hand, he gradually slouches and brings his head down so that when you shake hands, you’re at eye level. Depending on what part of the country he’s speaking in, and depending on the audience, his Southern Drawl becomes more or less noticeable. His speech patterns, vocabulary, and clothing will also change.Basically, on a physical level, he morphs to become one with the person or group. But it doesn’t end there. The physical and verbal timbre are also accompanied by the building of an empathic bond with his audience which is achieved by using neuro-linguistically delivered context. In the South, his anecdotes will be more homey, folkish, and farm boy. On the Eastern Seaboard, he becomes a more August figure. On the West Coast, he’s playing Jazz on a talk show and acts like a movie star.A politician builds this empathy by getting into the heads of the people he’s with… he practices thinking like his target, and practices being able to switch gears at a moments notice, and is able to do so in a very short time… the amount of time it takes to move from one handshake to the next.When I think about it, what we’re seeing with this AD fellow could be his unspoken, subconscious thought process as a politician building empathy with an audience jumping from the back seat to the front seat. He becomes the doctor because when he used to talk to doctors to try and raise campaign finance, he’d try and think like a doctor. Much like a method actor, he BECOMES the doctor. And what we’re seeing is a thought process which used to be in the background taking on the role of primary persona. He doesn’t realize he’s doing this or that the original personality isn’t in charge because he’s effectively been lobotomized by frontal lobe damage.I don’t think you’d see this same reaction to the same injury from too many people. Politicians, expert salesmen, professional fund raisers, yes. But not from too many other people…Peace

  11. Forgive me, but I just HAVE to ask… what if he walks through a cemetery?

  12. Is this maybe some sort of compulsive lying disorder linked with a want of fitting in and to be socially accepted. Maybe his insecurities have been heightened or something? Just a thought I wanted to put out there. Interesting article though.

  13. wow a lot of non-believers out there. well i guess you are entitled to your opinion, of course we are talking about real-life scientists. Not movie scientists you all seem to be thinking of. a man cannot just play this off and stump a bunch of scientists, hed half to be an amazing actor. Politicians are good at lying, not acting so if you have something useful to say, say it other then that please shut the fuck up

  14. I'm no PhD… thank you captain'O

    What is someone tells him, “I'm you”

    you would be hard pressed to keep up with him, during most types of damage the brain,it compensates, by developing the healthier portions…

    The fact that he is seen with anosognosia, no insight into the damage, probably doesnt help, at somelevel he is aware and is probably frightfully consious of his state, THe sheer humility of the human soul, guards against prolonged suffering. Or if its more comfortable you can imagine braindamage, and recovery to be painless and instantaneous. The worst part about it is they make no reference to his previous life, other than his occupation, as if he is no longer the same person. We really are biological machines. socially and individually.

  15. I have a son who suffered a brain injury at age 10. He is 20 now, and still has problems, talks about not wanting to live in this life, he is off my insurance because of his age. We can not afford help and there is no one to turn to. Unless you know him you would not know he had brain damage. He too is a chameleon.

  16. These comments are ridiculous and no ones to actually know what was going on, but yet ramble and pretend to know.

  17. I would love to see the results of a study of what AD's brain in doing in an fMRI while morphing into these different personas. Would the center of the brain that is engaged during the fabrication of a lie be activated?

  18. You are one smart cookie aren't you? fact of the matter, long story short is no one will ever really know the real truth because no one can get into his mind and see. Not every Scientist is 100% correct. people will tell you what you want to hear to benefit themselves. and before you tell anyone to “shut the fuck up”.. do you hear how retarded you sound? “politicians are good at lying, not acting.” they go hand in hand.

  19. Intelligence. Hmm. When x-rays were first used doctors performed unnecessary and dangerous ops to stitch lungs, hearts and diaphragms into higher positions in the plural cavity. At first x-rays were taken with the patient standing, doctors were used to performing autopsies on prostrate corpses. Dildos were used on Victorian women as a cure for Hysteria, more fun I guess than fumigating the vagina, also a supposed cure, imagined to somehow stop the womb from migrating around the body. How about the doctor who proposed exhaling air into the anus as a treatment for cardiac arrest. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in Fairies. Most westerners today believe that medieval people thought the world to be flat. No! Millions of people believe in an eight armed, elephant headed deighty. Don't believe everything you read… except this of course. Google it.

  20. Just what I was thinking. This is a talent without the usual boundaries.

  21. I actually am a neuropsychologist…and I can tell you that because I also created FM radio and invented salt, that I CAN and WILL outsmart an entire team of scientists from my laptop

  22. He'll probably adapt to your mannerisms since in his idea you're both part of the same entity anyways.

  23. Please understand that there was actual medical research on this, even though they joked around a bit with this post. You've read articles before, right? Especially ones you already know a ton about? Don't you hate it when they leave out what you consider valuable information? You have a brain, use it! Don't go crazy on a random post and say things unless you have looked around and researched! Do you remember old fashion research? Well, go ask some doctors and historians. Seek medical books, not blogs, you silly person! 😉

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