I See Demon Faces Everywhere
May 12, 2024 12:55 AM   Subscribe

Slate: [W]e spoke to Maggie McCart, an administrative assistant at an Illinois university, who suffers from an extremely rare disease called prosopometamorphopsia, which inflicts patients with a variety of wild hallucinations when they look at someone’s face. (archive)
posted by ShooBoo (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I thought prosopagnosia was bad enough
posted by Phanx at 2:19 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

MetaFilter: the distorted faces I see don’t scare me anymore. I’m used to it. I’ve made peace with it.
posted by chavenet at 3:46 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]

I have something a bit like this, but mine is well-identified brain damage that affects my visual processing. It leads to a sort of face-blindness where, unless I a) know someone well or b) interact with them frequently, I don’t necessarily recognize their faces, relying on clothing, gait, hairstyle, etc to ID people. Additionally, the extreme distortion of people’s faces makes it hard to look at them some days. At least they aren’t turning into demons and dragons or geometric shapes!

I’m very sympathetic to her long process through doctors. Even with all my advantages (e.g. being male, relatively high social status, having a very clear and documented medical situation), getting doctors to even recognize my experience is impossible, since they have no framework for experiencing it. Mostly, I don’t try anymore. I’m glad she was able to find someone to take her situation seriously.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:39 AM on May 12 [11 favorites]

Oof. She needs Oliver Sacks, but sadly he did not live forever. Actually, it sounds like she's amazing, and dealing with it really well.
posted by allthinky at 7:42 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

The neurologist said something like, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your brain.”

I hate this response to normal brain scans. MRIs don't see everything--and in fact what they see can depend on multiple parameters of the scanner. Medical tests in general have a certain probability of detecting abnormalities and sometimes don't detect anything wrong. It doesn't mean there's nothing wrong. You have to believe the patient and work within that framework.
posted by adoarns at 8:29 AM on May 12 [9 favorites]

There's a region of the temporal cortex that's specialized for processing faces, containing a few discrete areas we call "face patches," each of which seems to perform different operations in processing faces. (There's a few face patches elsewhere in the brain, too, but temporal cortex seems to be the main region.) There's a great series of classic studies using cartoon pictures showing how individual neurons encode features like distance between the eyes, ovalness of the face, width of the nose, etc.

Sometimes, when people need brain surgery for epilepsy, they'll agree to participate in a research study to do some investigational stimulation to help us learn about the brain. I once saw a video from such a study where electrodes were implanted into face patches, so the researcher could deliver microstimulation and see what happens. It went something like this:
Researcher: Okay, I'm going to stimulate a little bit and you tell me what happens, okay?

Patient: Ready.

R (delivers no current): Anything?

P: No.

R (delivers sub-threshold current): Anything now?

P: No.

R (delivers more current)

P (chuckles): Woah.

R: What did you see?

P: That was a trip. It was like, you were somebody else for a minute there.

R: Somebody else? Who?

P: I don't know, it was like your face just... Shifted. (Gestures.) Like one side kind of got long... I don't know how to describe it.
It's been some years since I saw that in a seminar, so I may have some details wrong, but I distinctly remember the patient laughing and saying "that was a trip" when the researcher gave the first effective dose of current.
posted by biogeo at 8:32 AM on May 12 [11 favorites]

In a word, GenjiandProust: Yikes!
My heart goes out to you.
posted by y2karl at 8:38 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

This happened to me on acid a very long time ago. I was glad it didn't last.
posted by mareli at 8:44 AM on May 12

Something similar happens to me when I'm semi-dreaming while falling asleep. If I try to picture anyone's face, it will quickly morph into all sorts of things. It can be disturbing enough when I know it's just sleep-adjacent weirdness, I can't imagine living with it while being awake.
posted by mollweide at 10:11 AM on May 12

I have experienced this a few dozen times.

The first instance was right after I came out of a locally owned and originated chicken restaurant into very bright mid-afternoon sunshine. I sneezed violently two or three times, and then walked into a newsstand/espresso place a couple of doors down the street.

When I looked at the Vogue magazine next to the cash register, the model's features were swimming around on her face like big bugs on a mud puddle.

When I looked up at the woman behind the register, her face was far worse: the swimming bug features were still there, but in addition there was an underlying seething, bubbling process that reminded me of mudpots sometimes found in areas with hotsprings.

It was terrifying, and I was pretty sure I’d just had a stroke. I ran out of there, and it occurred to me that it was maybe just some kind of sensory disturbance, and I tried to visualize my partner's face, but succeeded only in calling up a kind of gray blankness.

Then I felt true despair, and walked over to the college campus which was only a block away, and walked up and down tree-lined paths for half an hour so trying to keep my mind as blank as possible.

After my heart rate slowed down a bit an image of my partners face popped up spontaneously, and that turned out to be the signal that things were back to normal.

The next time it happened, I was in a thrift store I’d ridden my bicycle to, and the face of the first person I passed in an aisle looked like he had been the victim of some horrible face mangling auto accident, and I felt a flash of admiration at his apparent ability to take something like that in stride and get on with his life without a trace of self consciousness.

But the next person's face was very similar, and I knew it had to be me.

I went back out of the store to stand by my bicycle in the fresh air, but this time, instead of going away, the visual disturbance progressed into a conventional migraine, complete with central vision obliterated by repeating wallpaper like motifs, and coruscating fortification illusions, all of which resolved in about 30 minutes.

Fortification illusions are generally explained in terms of direct impingement of the optical cortex on surrounding tissues, and since the part of the temporal cortex which specializes in face recognition is at the bottom where the cortex curls around and under (as I recall), I concluded that the distorted faces I was seeing were probably the result of the cortex impinging on surrounding tissues there as well.
posted by jamjam at 10:31 AM on May 12 [16 favorites]

cortex needs to behave himself.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:08 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]

Also, jamjam, that sounds terrifying.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:21 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]

Something similar happens to me when I'm semi-dreaming while falling asleep. If I try to picture anyone's face, it will quickly morph into all sorts of things.

I get that with audio. As I am falling asleep, if I recall some bit of speech it will repeat over and over in my head, getting faster and higher pitched. Usually I just fall asleep but ocassionally I notice it happening consciously and the sound is unsettling enough to pop me awake.
posted by The Manwich Horror at 11:22 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]

I, too, am thankful that my facial misprocessing is much more mild.

I occasionally perceive a person’s hair and face as two entirely separate beings. As in, I sort of expect the hair and the face to walk in different directions, and I’m mildly surprised by the person’s ability to keep their hair on their head. It’s more likely to happen with televised faces (for some reason C.J. Cregg on the West Wing was one of the most frequent). It’s bad enough to be quite distracting, even though it’s not scary or unappealing. It’s just obviously a brain mistake. It is much more disturbing when it happens with real people in front of me, but thankfully that’s rare.

Also hard agree with the “there’s nothing wrong” and “our tests have not found what’s wrong” being two very different statements. The second is a much more useful perspective.
posted by nat at 11:33 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]

it is not clear, but it seems that her visual perception on drawn or printed faces doesn't do the same distortion? or does it? either way,
it is cool that she can draw it how she sees it.
posted by lapolla at 7:08 PM on May 12

once again I can be the “this happened to me during amphetamine psychosis” guy.

People sometimes looked like Charles Vess-ian faeries, or PS1 commercials from the late 90s, or Nosferatu-esque vampires, or like they had Snapchat filters blinking in and out of effectiveness.

When they were masked, it was worse; they were often unrecognizable to me except by voice or clothing, and their expressions rarely matched what they were saying or doing. Imagine an audio mixer whose eyes are sobbing as he describes how to log in to his ProTools rig, or an editor talking matter-of-factly about a large storage RAID setup in a network closet while his eyes are filled with hatred and rage.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:53 PM on May 12

The first instance was right after I came out of a locally owned and originated chicken restaurant into very bright mid-afternoon sunshine. I sneezed violently two or three times


This is called ACHOO syndrome (I don't make the news, I just report it).

"...the cause of photic sneezing is not fully understood. It may involve an over-excitability of the visual cortex in response to light, leading to a stronger activation of the secondary somatosensory areas"
posted by bq at 10:07 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

Here’s the video that biogeo described above
posted by svenx at 3:57 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]

Oh hell yeah, good find svenx! That's a longer version than what he showed in the lecture I attended. I had no idea they'd made it publicly available. That patient is a real mensch for agreeing to that.

(Also interesting to observe the discrepancy between my recollection of the video and what actually happened in it! Close but interestingly different.)
posted by biogeo at 5:22 PM on May 13

thought prosopagnosia was bad enough

At least with my prosopagnosia vast swaths of people just look indistinguishable. Having them morph from day to day, demon or otherwise, would just take it to the next level.
posted by Mitheral at 6:03 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

« Older Astronomers detect Milky Way black hole w mass 33...   |   Jesus Xing Musk Newer »

You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.