Brain damage and the social chameleon

The BPS Research Digest has picked up on a curious case study of a brain injured man whose identity appears dependent on the environment he is in, owing to severe memory problems.

The case was published in the neurological journal Neurocase by psychologist Giovannina Conchiglia and colleagues.

The patient was investigated by the team after he suffered left-focused damage to the frontal and temporal lobes after the oxygen supply to the brain was cut off during a heart attack.

Unfortunately, the full paper isn’t available online, but it’s well worth reading if you do have access to the journal.

The researchers put the patient, named AD, in various environments, such as a bar or kitchen, where he assumed the identity of a barmen and chef.

Interestingly, this didn’t happen in all cases:

During the first two experiments A.D was attracted by social and environmental stimuli, and did not in fact hesitate after a short while to interpret the role expected of him, and to “take on” the personality of the barman and chef, respectively. It is to be emphasised that in none of the experiments proposed did A.D. imitate the characters interpreted by the actors/experimenters, but rather assumed his own role in keeping with the context. In the last experiment, however, the patient manifested a different form of behaviour, in that he did not assume any role, as he considered that specific context inadequate…

His refusal to take on the role of laundryman in Experiment 3 is relevant since it is unlikely to be suited to him. The roles he adopts, therefore, must in some way correspond to certain traits of his personality structure or his social prerogatives, however versatile these may be.

There is now a growing recognition that symptoms caused by brain injury might be influenced not only by physical damage, but also by the wishes and desires of the patient.

Recent research has looked at this effect in both confabulations and delusions and found a strong interaction between unusual neurological conditions and the motivations of the patient.

This suggests that symptoms are influenced as much by the remaining intact brain areas, as the damaged ones.

Link to BPSRD article ‘Brain damage turns man into human chameleon’.
Link to abstract of Neurocase paper.

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