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Creepy "Shadow Person" Effect Conjured by Brain Shocks

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 20, 2006
 
Schizophrenics sometimes feel the presence of an unknown person behind them who mimics their movements. Now scientists have produced the same disturbing effect in a nonschizophrenic person by applying electric stimulation to a specific area of her brain.

The discovery could help scientists unravel the brain processes behind delusions of paranoia, persecution, and alien control.

Doctors unintentionally produced the delusion while evaluating a 22-year-old epileptic woman for possible surgery.

Though the woman had no history of psychological problems, she repeatedly perceived a "shadow person" hovering behind her when doctors electrically stimulated an area of her brain called the left temporoparietal junction.

"Our data most importantly show that paranoia might be related to disturbed processing of one's own body, [which] in some instances may become misrecognized as the body of somebody else," said Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

The hallucinatory condition was temporary and ended when stimulations were stopped.

Too Close for Comfort

During her ordeal, the patient described sensing an unknown person standing just behind her, mimicking her body positions.

"He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it," she told doctors, who report their discovery in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

When asked to lean forward and grasp her knees, the patient reported that she felt as if the shadow person were embracing her—a sensation she described as disturbing.

When performing assigned activities, such as a language-testing card game, she said that the shadow tried to interfere.

"He wants to take the card," she told doctors. "He doesn't want me to read."

Like schizophrenics, the patient did not recognize that she was experiencing an illusion of her own body.

"In that condition she might have understood that [the shadow] was an illusion, but she didn't," said study co-author Stephanie Ortigue, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Disturbed Sense of Self

Researchers suggest that the electrical stimuli may have disturbed the brain's concept of its own body.

The brain's temporoparietal junction has been linked to self-perception and the processes that distinguish oneself from others.

The region helps humans understand their spatial environment as well as their bodies' positions in that environment.

"It's an area that is known to be involved in the integration of different modalities like visual, auditory, tactile—all the modalities that make you realize where your body is in space and what you feel," Ortigue said.

Hyperactivity in the region has been found in schizophrenics who attribute their own actions to other people.

(See National Geographic magazine's "Beyond the Brain.")

Idil Cavus, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, found the report interesting and promising, but she offered a caveat.

"This is only one subject," Cavus said.

"So the question is whether this is something that can be obtained in other patients or whether it was somehow particular to that patient because [of her epileptic condition]."

Cavus also notes that schizophrenia is a far more complicated condition than that exhibited by the study's female subject. The perception of shadow people is reminicent of, but not necessarily the same as, a host of delusions suffered by schizophrenics.

"They report seeing and hearing things that can be anywhere around [them]," Cavus explained.

"[Delusions] can be sounds or visions of people. Many times it's a sense of being watched, of being tracked, of being talked to.

"People can have very complex delusions about alien control or having things implanted in their brains, or about others watching them, controlling their thoughts, and telling them what to do," she continued.

Schizophrenia affects about one out of every hundred people worldwide.

The recent find could help scientists unravel the brain processes behind such debilitating mental illnesses.

"We understand so little about how the brain makes sense of itself," Cavus said.

"It's very interesting to pursue how those processes can be broken down."

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