Capgras in the 21st Century

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A little-known syndrome discovered exactly 200 years ago is becoming very relevant in the age of Facebook.

The internet is rife with examples of the disconnect between reality and the virtual world. However, nowhere is more pronounced than on Facebook (FB). There, millions of people fill their friends’ feeds with images of a life well-lived – even if it’s not. The ability to create an idealized version of your own life and to share it so easily has never before been possible. What kind of effect has this had on our perceptions of ourselves and our online personas? Since social media has been around in some form or another for two decades, it’s a good time to have a look.

Facebook is a Place Where You Can Pretend

People love to portray their best selves on Facebook (and other social platforms, of course). Often, those ideal lifestyles they paint for themselves bely the darker side of life. Nobody really lives the ideal, sunny life where problems never arise, of course. But Facebook is a place where you can pretend. You can separate the real you from the ideal picture of you. In essence, you’re really splitting the yin from the yang, cordoning off the darker elements of your life. We all do it to some extent, by cherry picking the best images to share and then crafting uplifting messages to all who see them – “Had SUCH a great time on PEI this past weekend!”.

Facebook is Also a Place to Manipulate Others

In the same vein as painting a rosy picture of your own life, FB users can also paint other kinds pictures, like these:

  • One-sided political arguments
  • Unscientific nonsense about fitness, beauty, health and wellness (“This anti-aging moisturizer actually reversed my skin damage!)
  • Unsubstantiated scientific claims (“Global warming is a myth” etc.)

In 2016, the U.S. presidential election process was compromised by an onslaught of “fake news” regarding the candidates and the issues. We’ve heard a lot about Fake News the past few years. By now, it’s clear that we should all be a little more skeptical when it comes to believing everything we see online, especially if the source is Facebook. As one Stanford University scientists puts it in his article on Capgras Syndrome,

“Through history, Capgras syndrome has been a cultural mirror of a dissociative mind… Today we think that what is false and artificial in the world around us is substantive and meaningful.”

~Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University

Why are People so Easily Manipulated on FB?

When it comes to the problematic presidency of Donald J. Trump, people still wholeheartedly support him. This is despite glaring factual evidence that he doesn’t believe in science, knows very little about political history, doesn’t make decisions based on good information, and might therefore be little more than a big, phony imposter.

The ability to change the opinions of others with Facebook’s easy and widespread delivery of manipulative content is disturbing. It also begs the question, “why do so many people still rely on Facebook and other self-supporting online sources to form their political opinions?”

The ability to willingly separate recognition and familiarity are what make Facebook such a powerful platform for delusion.

So we know that Facebook is a place where we can all pretend. Individuals can separate the real from the ideal or they can create an imaginary world that funnels their followers into certain beliefs or actions (voting a certain way, for example).

Facebook’s algorithms have been exposed to support mass suspension of belief by serving people the content they want to hear. It’s called a “filter bubble”.

These algorithms use data to provide self-supporting news, not real reporting, to users who are only looking to have their self-serving opinions reinforced. What’s wrong with these people? Are they psychologically damaged? It could be that they suffer from a syndrome that’s both widespread and little-known: Capgras Syndrome.

Introducing Capgras Syndrome

People who suffer from Capgras Syndrome are convinced that a loved one has been replaced by an imposter. Sort of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where someone looks the same but they’ve actually been replaced by an alien… only with Capgras, it’s simply just another human, masquerading as your spouse or a close relative.

Scientists believe that the disorder stems from a damaged brain that can’t handle the classic love-hate relationship we all supposedly have with our loved ones. Because their brains can’t reconcile the love-hate conflict, people cope by splitting their loved ones into two different people. The real person, the one they love, has been replaced by someone they don’t trust: someone they “hate”. Both exist but the “real” one is lost. Alive, but inaccessible.

As scientific knowledge of how the brain works has progressed over the past century, there’s new insight on why Capgras syndrome occurs in people. The person who suffers from Capgras may recognize an “intruder” as someone close to them but they don’t feel familiar with that person. Modern science tell tells us that recognition is a cognitive function whereas familiarity is an emotional response.

Combined, cognition and emotion form the foundation for how we relate to other people. Separated, as they are in someone who suffers from Capgras, and the balance is off. The opposite of Capgras is where you don’t recognize familiar faces but you do remember who your loved ones are.

In this context, familiarity is defined as “knowing the true identity of someone’. Hold onto that because it’s going to be relevant a little later.

Social Media Also Creates Disassociation Between Recognition and Familiarity

Social media allows us to keep in contact with friends but only superficially. We only see upbeat snippets of their edited lives. We recognize them but we don’t truly know what’s really going on in real live. In other words, we aren’t truly “familiar” with them via online channels.

So if we recognize someone but we’re not familiar with them, isn’t that the definition of Capgras Syndrome?

That’s exacerbated by the fact that salespeople, scammers, and others are constantly claiming to know us in order to extract information or convince us to buy something. They’re not who they say they are so we get used to the idea that nobody is who they say they are. In other words, everyone is an imposter.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Capgras, too?

A Few Huge Side Notes

A Huge Side Note Here: It’s Possible to Delude Even Yourself on Facebook

There’s an offshoot of Capgras Syndrome in which the person you don’t recognize is yourself. There are documented cases where people look in the mirror and see an imposter. The person looks like them, dresses like them, and talks the same as them, too. The person even feels that they know the person in the mirror very well. Nevertheless, they perceive that person to be an imposter – one who typically ends up being aggressive.

This is usually called atypical Capgras syndrome.

So, when we look into the mirror of Facebook and our self-created timelines and feeds are reflected back to us as the ideal self (one we really shouldn’t recognize as real), is that yet another version of Capgras? One in which the mind has separated an entity that’s close to us (ourselves) into two separate entities? Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

There are indeed several versions of Capgras, all of which are part of a larger set of delusional states.

In any case, Capgras aside, there’s definitely some delusion when it comes to Facebook, our portrayals of ourselves, and the self-supporting news we want to hear. It may be tied to narcissism or it may be part of a syndrome where our digital lives are feeding our psychological disorders. There are actual scientists pondering that last idea. In an opinion piece titled, Facebook: has it created a generation of ‘self-absorbed spin doctors?”, a researcher from the University of Royal Holloway London conjectures that the social media platform has created a culture of narcissism.

Another Huge Side Note: Could Trump Himself Have Capgras?

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