Capgras Disorder: Seeing Imposters in Your Family

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is Capgras disorder? What happens in Capgras syndrome cases?

Capgras disorder is a condition in which people think that their family members are imposters. These delusions may be caused by damage to the brain.

Read more about Susannah exhibiting signs of Capgras disorder in Brain on Fire.

Susannah Cahalan and Capgras Disorder

Patients with “Capgras disorder” suffer from delusions that family members are imposters. Capgras syndrome cases were originally thought to be indications of schizophrenia. Doctors now believe it can be caused by neurobiological damage, as well as other conditions. 

Susannah is admitted to NYU Langone’s Advanced Monitoring Unit (AMU), for patients with severe epilepsy. It has been ten days since her first seizure.

At the AMU, patients are monitored 24 hours a day via electrodes implanted in their brains and two cameras over each bed—physical and electrical evidence of seizure activity. The hospital discards most of the footage, keeping only seizures and abnormal events. These recordings will be crucial to Susannah’s reconstruction of her illness once it has passed.

Susannah’s Father: An Imposter?

During her first few hours on the floor, Susannah is fitted with electrodes and given a little pink backpack holding her own EEG monitor. Allen arrives, and Susannah screams at the nurses to get him out of her room. She does the same when her father arrives, telling a neurologist that he’s playing tricks on her and is not her father but an imposter. 

That evening, a neurologist comes to Susannah’s room to conduct a health history. Susannah accurately conveys information about her health but also tells the neurologist that her dad is changing into different people to play tricks on her. “Unclear if hallucinating,” the neurologist diagnoses. Later that night, Susannah is convinced that someone is watching her in the bathroom. She calls her mom, telling her that the nurses are trying to hurt her.

When a nurse enters the room to tell Susannah not to use the phone, Susannah has another hallucination—she “hears” the nurse saying, without moving her lips, “I see you on the news.” 

Later that night, Susannah makes her first escape attempt. A group of nurses catch her as she dashes from her room. They return her, kicking and screaming, to her bed.

Capgras Disorder: Seeing Imposters in Your Family

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary :

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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