We start with the case of a woman who experienced unbearable tragedy. In 1899, this Parisian bride, Madame M., had her first child. Shockingly, the child was abducted and substituted with a different infant, who soon died. She then had twin girls. One grew into healthy adulthood, while the other, again, was abducted, once more replaced with a different, dying infant. She then had twin boys. One was abducted, while the other was fatally poisoned.
Madame M. searched for her abducted babies; apparently, she was not the only victim of this nightmarish trauma, as she often heard the cries of large groups of abducted children rising from the cellars of Paris.
As if all this pain was not enough, Madame M.’s sole surviving child was abducted and replaced with an imposter of identical appearance. And soon the same fate befell Madame M.’s husband. The poor woman spent days searching for her abducted loved ones, attempting to free groups of other abducted children from hiding places, and starting the paperwork to divorce the man who had replaced her husband.
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In 1918, Madame M. summoned the police to aid her in rescuing a group of children locked in her basement. Soon she was speaking with a psychiatrist. She told him she was the direct descendant of Louis XVIII, the queen of the Indies, and of the Duke of Salandra. She had a fortune of somewhere between 200 million and 125 billion francs, and had been substituted as a toddler in a conspiracy to deny her this money. She was constantly under surveillance, and most, if not all, of the people she encountered were substituted doubles, or even doubles of the doubles.
The psychiatrist, Joseph Capgras, listened patiently. It’s delusional psychosis—disordered thought, grandiosity, paranoia—he thought. Pretty standard fare. But then again, no one had ever described the particular delusion of a loved one being replaced by an identical double. What could that be about?
. . . .
Later, describing Madame M. in a case report, Capgras and his intern Jean Reboul-Lachaux wrote, “The feeling of strangeness develops in her, and it jostles with the feeling of familiarity that is inherent in all recognition. But it does not totally invade her consciousness; it does not distort either her perceptions or her memory images.” To Capgras, this was extraordinary. Recognition and familiarity elicited different emotions in Madame M. Her problem was she couldn’t reconcile the two emotions. The delusion of doubles wasn’t a sensory delusion, “but rather the conclusion of emotional judgment.”
“Capgras delusions,” as psychiatrists eventually called the belief that loved ones have been replaced by identical imposters, are not just archival oddities. Our modern understanding of the disorder tells us much about how the brain has separate modules for analyzing the cognitive aspects of recognition, and for feeling the emotional aspects of familiarity. It shows us that while cognition and emotion can be neurobiologically dissociated, behavior makes a lot more sense when they’re left alone to intertwine.
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When it comes to decision-making, particularly in a social context, what we view as appropriate behavior reflects a balance between emotion and cognition. What Capgras delusions show is that a similar balance occurs when it comes to identifying those whom we know best.
How do we identify a loved one? Well, he has eyes of a known color; distinctive hair texture; a particular posture; that scar on his chin from when he was a kid. Things we know. This is the purview of a highly specialized part of the primate brain, the fusiform gyrus, which recognizes faces, particularly those of significance.
. . . .
For 99 percent of hominid history, social communication consisted of face-to-face interactions with someone you’ve hunted and foraged with most of your life. But then the recognition and familiarity components got pried apart by modern technology. By “modern technology,” I mean a newfangled invention that came along a few millennia ago—you could communicate with someone by putting scratches of ink on a piece of paper, and then sending that paper a great distance where they’d decode it. Wait, you know someone by their microexpressions, their pheromones, their totality—not by implicitly assessing word frequency in their letter or the scrawl of their signature. This was a first technological blow to the usual primate sense of familiarity. And the challenges have accelerated exponentially from there. Is this text message from my loved one, does it feel familiar? Well, it depends. What emoticon did they use?
Thus, not only has modern life increasingly dissociated recognition and familiarity, but it has impoverished the latter in the process. This is worsened by our frantic skill at multitasking, especially social multitasking. A recent Pew study reported that 89 percent of cell phone owners used their phones during their most recent social gathering. We reduce our social connections to mere threads so that we can maintain as many of them as possible. This leaves us with signposts of familiarity that are frail remnants of the real thing.
This can lead to a problem; namely that we become increasingly vulnerable to imposters. Our social media lives are rife with simulations, and simulations of simulations of reality. We are contacted online by people who claim they know us, who wish to save us from cybersecurity breaches, who invite us to open their links. And who are probably not quite who they say they are.
By any logic, this should induce all of us to have Capgras delusions, to find it plausible that everyone we encounter is an imposter. After all, how can one’s faith in the veracity of people not be shaken when you sent all that money to the guy who claimed he was from the IRS?
But something very different has occurred instead. This withering of primate familiarity in the face of technology prompts us to mistake an acquaintance for a friend, just because the two of you have a Snapchat streak for the last umpteen days, or because you both like all the same Facebook pages. It allows us to become intimate with people whose familiarity then proves false. After all, we can now fall in love with people online whose hair we have never smelled.