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Do I Know You?

Monday, March 08, 2010 - 06:52 PM

How do you know your mother is really your mother? It's simple, right? You look at her, you recognize her, enough said. Well, in this may not be that simple.

It turns out that recognizing people, even the people we know the best, is more about how they make us feel than what we see in front of our eyes. And when your feelings about someone get jumbled, it can be disorienting, even traumatic. In this the podcast we talk to Dr. Carol Berman and Dr. V.S. Ramachandran to explore the psychology and neurology behind a rare but disturbing delusional disorder called Capgras.


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Comments [40]

Kevin Harris from Nashua, NH

In this week's (Sun 19-Sep-10), episode of "Selected Shorts" (see:, the first story appears to recount an episode that happened to the author, exactly as described in this program - he can't recognize his wife, which freaks him out. He says he's having a migraine headache at the time, which makes me think he's actually having a stroke.

Sep. 20 2010 09:58 AM
Craig Federhen

Yeah, where is Charlie the dog? I like the radio show, but your web site pretty much sucks.

Jun. 04 2010 08:53 PM

Where's the
'cute little white dog'?

May. 05 2010 05:13 PM

I'd be interested to know if there is a disorder where an individual sees a complete stranger as a loved one (somewhat opposite of Capgras)

Apr. 07 2010 11:35 AM

The first time I ever heard of Capgras delusions was from V.S. Ramachandran. His biological explanation seems much more logical to me than the psychological one but that's not the whole story. The severance of the tie between the visual and emotional systems in the brain might only give the reason why these delusions occur. Even this is questionable, do these patients report feelings like this toward all people they have known before or just particular ones? The lowered galvanic response to familiar faces is well documented in people suffering from delusions like this but there must be something else at play as well because this is after all a delusion which by definition means false belief firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. There is something more in delusions than just a false belief because when I'm convinced I'm right it IS possible to persuade me with enough evidence that my belief was wrong and I am able to doubt myself. People suffering from delusions do not. For people not familiar with Capgras delusions this is not a disorder itself but a symptom that can show itself in different contexts: neurological problems, delusional disorder, schizophrenia even non brain diseases that might affect the brain somehow AIDS, malaria etc. It is one of the so called mono98.218.200.116thematic delusions (delusions centering on a single theme as opposed to polythematic delusional systems most known in schizophrenia). There are several of them (Capgras - close person was replaced by an impostor, Fregoli - various people are in fact the same person in disguise, Cotard - I am dead, somatoparaphrenia - this limb does not belong to me, mirrored self misidentification - the person in the mirror is not me, thought insertion - someone is putting thoughts in my head, reduplicative paramnesia - a person, object or place has been duplicated to look exactly like a familiar one etc). They are all fascinating conditions, it would make for a very interesting episode if they were all covered.

Apr. 03 2010 03:08 PM

Was curious, in case of a blind person could a similar affliction affect the feelings associated with an individual’s voice? If so then this would be a disorder not only effecting vision but a persons primarily sensory organ. Just a thought...

Apr. 01 2010 08:31 AM
Caroline Wagner

The tone of the story was odd - nervous and strange laughter. A weird comment by a psychologist who thinks that Capgras might be _denial_? What? We had a family member who had this condition as part of having Lewy Body Disease, a deteriorating brain condition. It was exceedingly distressing for everyone involved...neither funny nor creepy.

Mar. 30 2010 07:15 PM

By the way, do you know the excellent Richard Powers novel The Echo Maker - in which Capgrass plays a very important role:

Mar. 30 2010 03:58 PM

I immediately thought of Atmospheric Disturbances, too. Wonderful read, with a narrator who suffers from Capgras. Great stuff!

Mar. 27 2010 02:07 AM

Oops, I forgot to put my name on the above comment.

Mar. 25 2010 10:32 AM

This American Life is a good show. The thing is, though, you have a TV producer and a radio producer both on the same show in Radio Lab, so it gets a little crazy. Radio Lab did a whole podcast on this, called Making the Hippo Dance.

Mar. 25 2010 10:31 AM

I disagree with you. It is the way the show is edited which makes is extaordinary. Be glad to have such a programm, I wish we had comparable programms here in Germany, ours are soo boring. I recommended the show to our local radio stations, because I´d like to listen to something like this in German. Especially the little effects make the show great. Science IS moving, exciting! Very often people think it is dull and radio lab presents science in a way which allows everybody to take part, because it is not "for those who attended university". I am a teacher and I translated parts of the show for my students to discuss it with them. Thank you for this.

Mar. 25 2010 03:41 AM

I don't necessarily disagree with you guys, I know what you mean about Scientific American, it is pretty boring. A little editing here and there doesn't hurt, To the Best of our Knowledge and This American Life are good examples.

Mar. 24 2010 04:56 PM

@Patrick, that's one of the reasons I listen to and adore this show! If I wanted to read an article, I would.

Mar. 23 2010 07:53 PM

I disagree with Patrick. I used to listen to Scientific American, and it bored me to tears. The subjects were amazing and interesting, but all they did was talk. All I kept on thinking was, "This would be better on Radio Lab."

Mar. 23 2010 02:15 PM

I keep trying to listen to this podcast because the content is so interesting, but the way the show is edited is SO unbearable. The way the hosts talk over the interviews, all the annoying little effects, it sounds like there are 2 show being played over each other. It’s frustrating because the stuff they talk about is so interesting. It would be awesome if you guys focused more on the content. The topics are so interesting that you don’t need those editing gimmicks to prop up the show. The information can carry the program.

Mar. 23 2010 01:26 PM

Hi All, I was wondering if anyone had come across research looking into smell therapy in people who have Capgras delusion. Smell is one of our most primitive senses, and unlike all other senses it's input is not integrated by the thalamus. It is this lack of integration that accounts for the fact that we have no real words to describe smell. Vision has colors, taste has sour, sweet, etc, sound has pitch and rhythm, but the best we can do when it comes to smell is to say that is smells like something else. Or that is smells good or bad. It is also this lack of higher integration that leads to the incredibly strong emotional responses that are generated to smell. It feeds right into the limbic system. If the lesion in Capgras was at the level of the thamlus or above then smell memory should still be intact and having that loved one wearing a particular cologne might help rectify the emotional and sensory mismatch. This is why I thought it might be a good target for treatment. I don't have enough time to Pub Med it right now but I would be curious if anyone knows about any research done in that area.

Mar. 22 2010 06:54 PM

Hi, I've discovered radiolab last year. Thank god the show is available in podcast over the internet : i live in France. There's no chance i can hear it on the radio!
I listened to this short piece a couple of days ago. It really interested me. The brain just fascinates me. Anyways, last night, i started reading a new a novel : "the echo maker" by richard Powers (national book award 2006). Guess what? the main character (who has brain damage after a car accident) suffers from this Capgras disorder! I was stunned by the coincidence. Did you guys know this? I always wonder how you pick the subjects for your short pieces. Any chance this novel had an influence? Wouldn't that be an awesome coincidence ;o)
Thank you very much for your work!

Mar. 22 2010 12:40 PM

As an ERMD, in the first few sentences of "Do I Know You?", it was clear this was organic, not a psychological/psychiatric problem-- even without background of head trauma or dementia, or documented temporal lobe seizures. It probably happens "spontaneously" also, e.g., strokes, migraines, and with no "demonstrable" cause. See you after a lit. search. How awful for families. Structures are perhaps (doubt) worked out; perhaps some resolve depending on cause.

Mar. 18 2010 03:42 AM
Brooks Whitehouse

You mention a lot of wonderful books on your shows. Any chance of you posting a list of those books by episode? I am afraid I might crash trying to write them down while driving!!

Mar. 17 2010 10:37 AM
Sara D

Malcolm Q, You beat me to the punch. I immediately thought of the Fate of the Jedi series too. Is it hard to imagine that a show like Radiolab should have Star Wars fans as listeners?

Mar. 14 2010 12:49 PM

Creepy. Just how rare is this? I would like an answer, really.

Mar. 14 2010 08:52 AM

Jad, thanks for the response. Equal parts creepy and incredible.

Mar. 13 2010 06:02 PM

Sounds eerily like the plot from The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Yikes!

Mar. 12 2010 05:03 PM

Chris, there's something not too far from Capgras called Cotards Disease. There, rather than believing someone else to be an impostor, the person will feel as if they themselves aren't real. As if they're a ghost.

Mar. 12 2010 04:06 PM

Have there been any cases (or is it possible) to have something like a reverse Capgras Syndrome, in which you believe you are an impostor of yourself?

Mar. 12 2010 01:28 PM

I actually have this feeling a lot, when I have complex-partial seizures. Situations like...I roll over in bed, see my partner and push him into the wall terrified because I cannot recognize him, the apartment I am in, or know who I am. This happens all the time and can be pretty terrifying. The other week I was in the juice aisle at the supermarket, had a complex partial seizure and my best guess was that I was in a carnival, so hey, it goes both ways. It's nice to hear a clip on this experience!

Mar. 11 2010 09:43 PM

Oops, that link to the book review doesn't seem to have worked. Another try:

(Please excuse the plug, but I really loved the book!)

Mar. 11 2010 02:53 PM
Ben Kupstas

This was a great little segment on a fascinating topic. I kept expecting to hear you talk to Rivka Galchen, though, whose debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (, deals—albeit more metaphorically and metaphysically—with a situation similar to these stories about people suffering from Capgras syndrome. Galchen was trained in medicine (with a focus on psychology) as well as writing; she received an M.D. from Mount Sinai before earning her MFA.

Anyhow, she's a brilliant new writer with a wonderfully scientific and inquisitive bent (and a truly intriguing background), and she's written several scientific articles (for The Believer, Harper's, ...) in addition to her fiction. I'm sure she'd be a great contributor to a future episode. Just throwing it out there...

Mar. 11 2010 02:50 PM

I haven't listened to this segment yet, but I was already intrigued by the idea that we recognize people by how we feel about them. I've noticed for a while that when I try to remember a person associated with my past, I first remember how I felt about that person, before I remember their name or appearance. Interesting.

Mar. 10 2010 07:30 PM
howard zugman

In the case where the visual channel is messed up and the audio channel works, why wouldn't the therapuedic method be to have the afflicted person in a face-to-face situation be advised to blindfold him/herself for a period (say one minute) the unblindfold for a similar period until (hopefully) the brain begins to blend these two situations? It would seem that in alternationg between a recognizing and unrecognizing situation, the brain would eventually create a solution.

Mar. 10 2010 05:49 PM

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with Richard Powers, who wrote the Echo Maker, which is about a man with Capgras delusion. I told him to listen to your show because he seems to be interested in emerging science.

Mar. 10 2010 02:44 PM
Witches Brew

-correction- What-not wow- are the odds that i would watch and then hear about something so specific?

Mar. 10 2010 01:00 PM
Witches Brew

I just heard about Capgras, on the excellent bbc series The Human Face, hosted by John Cleese, and it even has Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, in the episode!!! wow are the odds that i watch and then hear about something so specific? and within just one week!

Mar. 10 2010 12:58 PM

Holy crap. Am I the only one who gets the creeping horrors about stories like this?

I can't read any Oliver Sacks book anymore because of stories like this.

All of them went like the woman's: One day, she was completely normal with no symptoms. The next day she couldn't recognize her husband/move without thinking/feel she was in the real world/have a non-logical thought/ whatever and there was no cure or treatment.

Jeez. I'm all creeped out again.

Mar. 10 2010 12:17 PM
Malcolm Q.

They actually mention this in a series of novels (nerd alert) in the Star Wars universe called 'Fate of the Jedi.' It is a great plot devise and an awesome way to explore the self.

Mar. 10 2010 02:29 AM

Glad to see radiolab returning to form with this short. Keep it up guys!

Mar. 09 2010 11:10 AM
Beth Watson

Re Lucy: I think those stupid self-centered psychologists should have been shot for putting their "baby" unprotected into "freedom" when they had brought her up and raised her as a human child. What had they taught her about survival in the wild? They had taught her to trust and love humans, did they think she'd be happy abandoned in the wild? That poor baby. I was appalled by this story. I'm still angry.

They projected their own prejudices that animals are better free in the wild ignoring the fact that they had totally modified the experiences of this creature. How could those people be so callous as to not see this abandonment from the point of view of the ape herself? Poor Lucy.

Mar. 09 2010 10:07 AM

Dr. Ramachandran is awesome. I love how Radiolab often intersects with speakers from TED.

Mar. 09 2010 02:06 AM
William B

A perfect little segment. Wish you could release these daily!

Mar. 08 2010 07:26 PM

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