There a few ways we know a person can develop prosopometamorphopsia — a visual distortion of people’s faces or specific parts of their faces. LSD and other hallucinogens can induce it, as can strokes and tumors which affect certain areas of the brain. But the distortions are rarely so specific as the woman who saw dragon faces everywhere, and watched as people’s faces morphed into Smaug.
As neuroscientist and science writer Neuroskeptic reports in Discover Magazine, scientists have recently published in The Lancet the case of a 52-year-old whose brain called down dragon faces. From the study:
In July, 2011, a 52-year-old woman presented to our psychiatric outpatient clinic in The Hague with a life-long history of seeing people’s faces change into dragon-like faces and hallucinating similar faces many times a day. She could perceive and recognize actual faces, but after several minutes they turned black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red.
And the woman’s condition extended to more than just faces. Dragon-like visages would drift at her from the walls, electric sockets, computer screens, and the dark of night. She was haunted by her own brain.
It got to the point where the woman was unable to hold a job or have meaningful social interactions, which is understandable. But with the help of rivastigmine, an anti-dementia medication, the dragons mostly took flight. Since taking the medication, she has been able to hold a steady job for the last three years.
Interestingly, the research was lead by a team that included legendary neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, who himself has a condition where the shapes that make up a person’s face are not processed as a face — prosopagnosia. (The history of Sacks’ condition is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s fun to speculate that prosopagnosia is why no one can recognize Superman too.)
MRIs, blood-tests, and EEGs couldn’t sniff out the ultimate cause of the woman’s hallucinations, and Neuroskeptic believes the authors of the study have encountered another genuinely mysterious cognitive condition. At least the woman could get some relief with medicine…and she wasn’t seeing these faces.
STUDY: Blom JD, Sommer IE, Koops S, & Sacks OW (2014). Prosopometamorphopsia and facial hallucinations. Lancet, 384 (9958) PMID: 25435453