Five of the Most Unusual Brain Disorders
Five of the Most Unusual Brain Disorders

Five of the Most Unusual Brain Disorders

Some of these seem stranger than fiction, but they’re all very real.

You walk down a hallway and see a stranger walking toward you. You wonder, “What’s he doing here?” As you get closer, you see that he’s wearing your jacket and matching your pace. His hair even looks like yours. Huh…?

After a long, spine-tingling minute, you realize that you’re looking in a mirror. That stranger is you.

This might sound like a scene from Black Mirror, but it’s actually a situation familiar to some people with “Face Blindness.”  Read on to learn more about it and other fascinating conditions.

And the next time a coworker doesn’t recognize you, maybe cut them some slack.

Illustration of man with obscured face to represent unusual brain disorders
Illustration by Joseph Moore
1. Prosopagnosia (aka “Face Blindness”)

As the colloquial name suggests, people with this disorder have trouble recognizing faces, sometimes even their own. It often affects them from birth and doesn’t usually go away.

People with the disorder can learn coping skills to manage it, like memorizing others’ facial features from photographs or remembering the way someone walks. However, there is no treatment for it.

Sadly, people with prosopagnosia may develop social anxiety and isolate themselves. They may worry that they’ll come across as rude or uninterested when they don’t recognize someone they know well and choose to avoid social interactions.

As many as 1 in 50 people may have the disorder to varying degrees, so you’ve likely met someone who struggles with it. If you’ve ever met Brad Pitt, he might be one of them. Pitt revealed in a 2022 GQ interview that he suspects he has the disorder, though he’s never been formally diagnosed.

2. Capgras Syndrome (aka the real “Impostor Syndrome”)

No, this isn’t the one where you’re in grad school and just waiting for everyone to figure out that you’re not really qualified/smart/dedicated enough to be there. Gah!

A person with Capgras Syndrome perceives a loved one to be a clone or other form of impostor rather than the person they know and love. Can you imagine how distressing it would be to walk into your bedroom and see a person who looked just like your husband but “know” it wasn’t really him? Since it actually is him, he’d probably feel pretty distressed, too.

Capgras Syndrome is rare and difficult to study. Experts suspect that a disconnection between areas of the brain that perceive faces and register emotion may cause the syndrome. The idea behind this is that when you see a woman who looks like your mother, you expect to feel an emotional response (no matter how well you get along, you expect to feel something). When seeing her sparks no response, your mind explains the discrepancy by insisting she’s an imposter [1].

Research indicates that Capgras Syndrome is more common among people with dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and in people who’ve suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries [2].

3. Synesthesia

Do you see numbers as colors? Or, maybe you feel sounds physically, as if certain ones tickle your neck or rumble deep in your stomach? If so, you might be a synesthete.

Simply put, this is a condition (not a disorder) in which the stimulation of one sensory pathway causes the stimulation of an unrelated sensory pathway. Sensory inputs can get mixed up in lots of different ways, and this results in many forms of synesthesia (estimates vary from 60-150).

According to the American Psychological Association, synesthesia is “biological, automatic and apparently unlearned, distinct from both hallucination and metaphor.” So, a person who tastes beef every time they see a triangle doesn’t merely choose to associate that shape with that taste – it happens whether they like it or not. They might even experience the taste as vividly as if they were eating a tenderloin. Sounds pretty cool, if you like steak.

Research suggests that about 2-4% of the population has some form of synesthesia, with varying ideas about which forms are most prevalent.

Cotard’s Syndrome (aka Walking Corpse Syndrome)

As the name implies, this one’s especially ghoulish and distressing. People with this rare condition hold delusions ranging from believing that they are missing body parts to insisting that they’re dead. A case report published in Psychiatry (Edgmont) described a woman admitted to a psychiatric unit after complaining to her family that “she was dead, smelled like rotting flesh, and wanted to be taken to a morgue so that she could be with dead people.”

While the cause is unknown, Cotard’s Syndrome is associated with psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression or underlying neurological conditions such as dementia, brain tumors, and epilepsy [3].

In a piece for Big Think, Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran proposes that Cotard’s Syndrome may constitute an “alienation of the self” due to a disconnection between sensory input and limbic structures that process emotion. Sounds a little like Capgras Syndrome, eh?

To better understand this, Dr. Ramachandran suggests we imagine a “widespread disconnection of all sensory input; hearing, touch, vision, everything is disconnected from the limbic structures. . . None of the sensations of the external world have any emotional significance.” It’s hard to even imagine what that would feel like. Ramachandran goes on to explain, “That’s about as close as you can get to existential annihilation.”

The experience of Cotard’s Syndrome sounds truly horrific! Fortunately, it does respond to treatment including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and psychiatric medications.

Alien Hand Syndrome

This one sounds funny to watch but terrifying to experience. People with this syndrome lose control of one of their hands and watch helplessly as it moves about, performing activities as if driven by a will of its own.

Alien Hand Syndrome is caused by brain damage that disrupts movement and control. While it’s a very rare side effect of conditions like brain tumors, traumatic brain injury, or strokes, the syndrome may appear in around 30% of people with corticobasal syndrome (a variant of Parkinson’s disease).

Depending on where in your brain the damage occurred, your alien hand might engage in one or more of these behaviors:

  • Involuntary groping (usually your body parts and clothes)
  • Levitation (your arm rises into the air for no reason)
  • Waving about or other purposeless movements
  • Undoing work completed by your other hand (such as unfastening buttons that your other hand just secured)

The condition can last anywhere from 30 minutes to the rest of your life and there are no known direct treatments.

However, creative problem-solving may help people cope. Some people sit on their alien hand while in public (to minimize embarrassment). Others do things like wear an oven mitt to keep their wayward hand from groping them or engaging in other disruptive behaviors. Again, really not funny if this is your daily reality!

Next Steps

If you’re bothered by any unusual sensory experiences (especially symptoms of Capgras, Cotard’s or Alien Hand syndromes), please contact your primary care physician to determine whether your experiences stem from an underlying medical condition.

If you or someone you love would benefit from talking to a mental health provider in Tennessee, contact Athena Care.

One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.