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These creepy faces of lizard people show what it’s like to live with a rare distorted perception syndrome

A 58-year-old man with a rare disease sees normal human faces on screens and paper, but in person they take on a demonic, lizard-like quality. The patient has a unique case of prosopometamorphopsia (PMO), a condition in which people’s faces appear distorted, with reptilian or other non-human features.

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A new study published in The Lancet describes a case that is unique in that to men, faces only appear demonic when people are physically present. The patient has been suffering from this condition for the past two and a half years and says that he has become accustomed to the sight.

Because faces appear normal on screens and photographs, the research team had a unique opportunity to study how distortions appear and create accurate renderings of “demonic” faces.

In other studies of this condition, patients with PMO cannot judge how accurately a visualization of their distortions represents what they see, because the visualization itself also depicts a face, so patients will perceive distortions in that as well. During the process, we were able to visualize the patient’s perception of facial distortions in real time.

— Antonio Mello, Dartmouth College researcher and lead author of the study

For the patient, the faces look truly creepy in real life. The eyes are wide and angular, the nostrils flare, and the lips stretch outward, taking up the entire width of the face. Furrows appear on the forehead, and the ears deform into an elven shape, ending in sharp points. In milder cases, facial features simply sag, appear displaced, and are smaller or larger than in real life.

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In another case published in The Lancet in 2014, a 52-year-old woman from the Netherlands said:

Throughout her life, she had seen people’s faces turn into the likeness of dragons, and hallucinated such faces many times a day. She could perceive and recognize real faces, but after a few minutes they would turn black, grow long pointed ears and a prominent muzzle, and display reptilian skin and huge eyes of bright yellow, green, blue or red. She saw similar dragon faces reaching out to her many times a day – from walls, electrical outlets or computer screens, both in the presence and absence of facial patterns, and at night she saw many dragon faces in the dark.

People with PME are often diagnosed with other disorders, such as schizophrenia, and prescribed antipsychotic medications, according to Brad Duchesne, senior author of the study and principal investigator in Dartmouth’s Social Perception Laboratory.

It is not uncommon for people with PMO to not tell others about their problem with face perception because they are afraid that others will think that the distortions are a sign of a mental disorder. This is an issue that people often don’t understand.

The 58-year-old patient had bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suffered a head injury when he was 43 years old. The patient does not suffer from visual impairment, but there was a small round lesion on the left hippocampus, which, according to the team, turned out to be a cyst. Other individuals with Alice in Wonderland syndrome (a general term for perceptual distortions) have also been reported to have brain lesions—encephalitis, migraines, and substance use have also been associated with the syndrome, although none of these were observed in this case. patient.

To characterize facial distortions, the researchers asked a man to describe the perceived differences between the face of a person in the room with him and a photograph of that person.

For some people, PME can last only a few days, for others it can last for years. According to the researchers, there are only 75 reported cases of PME, making the disorder one of the rarest perceptual distortions.

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