You sit down in the morning to a cup of coffee, and to work the maze on the back of the Lucky Charms box. Your nose itches, and suddenly somebody else reaches over to scratch it.
Then this person grabs your coffee mug and brings it to your lips. You're starting to wonder who this is and why he's being so helpful, considering that you live alone. It's then that you realize, to your horror, that you've actually had someone else's arm grafted onto your shoulder and the goddamn thing is acting all innocent about it.
And the thing is really good with kids, too!
People with somatoparaphrenia suffer damage to the brain's homunculus region or "body map." That's the part of your brain that catalogs all the parts of your body and keeps track of them so you know where all your limbs are without actually looking at them. If you have a stroke or something that messes with your brain, however, it can actually lose track of one of your limbs. And this really, really messes with your head. It makes it so that you can still move the limb and still register feeling -- you just don't recognize it as yours.
In one documented case, a man denied ownership of an arm and a foot, and while he didn't know where the foot came from (it was a "big foot only suited for work"), he figured for some reason that the arm belonged to a woman he knew named Maria.
She did have some guns, though.
In some cases, the experience of having someone else's body parts attached to you is so stressful that people will actually try to get the foreign limbs chopped off. In 1997, a man approached surgeon Robert Smith and asked him to amputate his left leg, which he believed wasn't his. Apparently shooting for the title of World's Most Unethical Surgeon, Smith granted the request, and was immediately swamped by people wanting him to cut off their alien limbs. He actually made a decent living cutting off people's healthy body parts until the hospital ordered him to stop, for some reason.
"Yeah, that feels much better. Thanks, Doc."
Imagine you're in an accident that lands you in the hospital. You're clearly fine, but you know how doctors are, it's all about precaution (or padding the bill). So, the doctor asks if you can move your legs. It's the tenth time he's asked you to do this today, even though you clearly can. This doctor, who is clearly the worst doctor in the world, just shakes his head sadly and tells you he doesn't think you'll ever walk again.
It's at this point when you start wondering if this is in fact a real doctor, or if a janitor is just impersonating one like in that episode of Scrubs.
Though we'd probably go to that hospital because he's awesome.
Anosognosia is a delusion suffered by paralyzed people that they are not, in fact, paralyzed. And it's incredibly common -- according to some studies, over half of people with hemiplegia (stroke-induced paralysis on one side) will have anosognosia for at least some amount of time. And to be clear, we're not talking about people who are in denial, or just too stubborn or proud to admit they're disabled. They have damage to their right parietal cortex, the area responsible for drawing conscious attention to body perception, movement and sensation.
Patients with anosognosia wind up with the bizarre delusion that their inability to move their limbs is not because they can't, but because they don't want to. When prompted to move a paralyzed limb, patients will make up excuses to convince the doctor (and themselves) that their noncompliance is actually a conscious choice, like their arm hurts from arthritis, or that they don't move their limb just because the man tells them to.
Incidentally, it's the same excuse used in many 3 a.m. sobriety tests.
However, some people, like neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, believe that, while the patients aren't lying per se, there might be some subconscious knowledge of their condition. When Ramachandran asked a woman to touch her nose with her paralyzed left hand, she didn't just make up excuses not to do so; eventually, she just grabbed her left arm with her working right arm and guided it to her nose, like, "Oh, yeah, I always do it this way."
"See, I can sit up on my own just fine."
Imagine you walk downstairs one morning to find someone cooking scrambled eggs. The person smiles at you, but you don't go in for a kiss because you're not sure if it's your wife, or your son, or your uncle Joe who is staying for the weekend. Later you're at work, and someone asks you to do something, but you don't know if it's your boss (in which case you should comply) or that jackass from two cubicles down trying to get you to do his work so he can go back to linking all of his paper clips together in one huge chain.
Every person you run into is a total stranger ... even though you've seen them every day, for years.
You must have a conversation with Criss Angel, REO Speedwagon or Carrot Top. Distinguish.
What we're describing is prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. There are different levels of this -- whenever you hear someone say they are "bad with faces," chances are they suffer from some form of prosopagnosia. About 2 percent of the population has a mild case of it, and it's more pronounced in people with conditions along the autism spectrum.
But then you have the severe cases, the people who can't tell even their family and friends apart from total strangers. Sometimes, they can't even recognize themselves.
"Frankly, I don't see the resemblance."
To understand what it's like, imagine trying to distinguish one dolphin from another, or trying to pick one chicken out of a police lineup. You couldn't, unless one had some distinguishing feature, like say if the chicken was wearing a tiny beret or if the dolphin had a swastika tattoo. The only reason that humans can tell other humans apart is that we have a specially developed area of the brain just for that. Back in the Stone Age, it became evolutionarily advantageous to know your bros from the total douchebags who steal your scraps of meat. Being able to greet your favorite chicken by name before you kill and eat it? Slightly less important.
"I dub thee ... Beakface Squeakything!"
Granted, everyone has had that awkward moment when they're shaking hands with someone they know at a party but can't place their face and can't quite remember their name. For people with prosopagnosia, this is almost every encounter they have. Enjoying a movie? Impossible -- they can't tell who any of the characters are unless they say their names at the beginning of each line of dialogue.
However, people with prosopagnosia can become ingenious in their techniques for recognizing people, identifying them by memorizing their distinctive features. It works perfectly as long as nobody you know ever gets a haircut.
"OH, I recognize you! You're the guy who has the beer!"
People with brain disorders get by in much the same way as people with other illnesses or disabilities. For instance, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist we mentioned earlier, has prosopagnosia himself, and once preened his beard using what he thought was his reflection, but was in fact a stranger on the other side of a window. And he did well enough for himself that he got quoted as an expert in a Cracked article.
For more disorders, check out 6 New Personality Disorders Caused by the Internet and 5 Mental Disorders That Can Totally Get You Laid.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn how to fake your own disorder.
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