Logo - Robert M. Kaplan
Forensic Psychiatrist
Graduate School of Medicine University of Wollongong

How your frontal lobes can turn you into another person

How your frontal lobes can turn you into another person

Article submission by Robert M. Kaplan in Medical Republic.
Publishing date: 29/03/2016.
Woody Allen’s 1983 black and white movie Zelig depicted an amazing character who had the ability to take on another personality and even change his appearance, convincing people that he was someone else.

Among the personalities Zelig assumed were those of a rabbi, Red Indian, Chinese laundryman, midwife, baseball player, psychiatrist and Nazi. One of Allen’s most charming movies, afterwards viewers had two questions: who was the Zelig character based on, and what could explain this intriguing phenomenon?

The first question was easy to answer. He was Ignácz Trebitsch, alias Ignatius Trebitsch Lincoln, the most amazing con-man of the twentieth century.

British historian Bernard Wasserstein gave the world the fullest account of who was Trebitsch Lincoln. Ignácz Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, described as a perpetual vaudeville act on three continents, was among many other things sometime author, fraudster, Anglican curate, Hungarian Jew, German revolutionary, spy, journalist, international outlaw, Chinese cult leader, the Abbot Chao Kung of Shanghai, and British MP for the constituency of Darlington.

Trebitsch had a completely pliant personality which immediately overpowered everyone he directed himself at, enabling him to insert himself into the highest levels of three separate national elites: the British, the German and the Chinese.

Constantly changing his name, his nationality, his religion, nearly always on the run, Trebitsch made no attempt to keep a low profile. Carrying dozens of passports in different names, he slipped through the nets, cast off his pursuers, escaped from prisons, and reappeared in another country in the eye of the next international storm.

One of the commonest views of the Zelig phenomenon is that these characters are psychopaths who, lacking internal monitors of self-awareness or conscience, are instinctively able to mould themselves to other’s expectations.

The explanation is more complicated. The psychological view is that the Zelig character had a disturbance of identity. Profound deprivation at an early stage of development led to a weak ego and sense of identity; hence it was easier to assume another personality to gain acceptance and approval from others.

Part of the personality attaches itself to another person, making the person believe he is going through the actions of another person.

Psychoanalysts saw this as the self allowing ‘pseudo-personalities’ to emerge from which a patient could continually wander from one to another. The ‘as-if personality’ involved a completely passive attitude to the environment with a highly plastic readiness to pick up signals from the outer world and to mould behaviour accordingly. Their identification with what other people were thinking and feeling rendered the person capable of the greatest infidelity and the basest perfidy.

However, the Zelig Phenomenon went far beyond merely convincing others that one was someone else; the person appeared to completely assume the personality of the intended, including their behaviour and, in some cases, appearance.

The latter part of Trebitsch’s life was affected by a manic-depressive psychosis that produced gloom, pessimism and paranoia on the one hand, and omnipotence, euphoria, gregariousness and elation on the other. The mood cycle found expression in periods of withdrawal and despair, followed by manic phases of hyperactivity, prophetic claims and grandiose political delusions.

Manic-depression still does not explain how Trebitsch’s convincing deception started so early in his life.

Despite the mood swings, Trebitsch was still able to succeed as a confidence trickster of extraordinary capability. The problem with such psychological explanations is that these concepts cannot be proven, regardless of how intellectually appealing the hypothesis. Disorders of the brain, on the other hand, have the advantage of providing a link between behaviour and pathology.

There the situation remained. Zelig would have been regarded as no more than an interesting social footnote until 2007 when Italian neurologists Giovannina Conghiglia, Gennarg Della Rocca and Dario Corossi encountered a patient demonstrating what they called the ‘Zelig-like syndrome’:

“A university graduate, politician and amateur actor, age sixty-five, was admitted with signs of fronto-temporal dementia. His symptoms included severe memory problems, irritability, repetitiveness and disinhibition. His doctors described ‘a peculiar form of behaviour’ manifesting in an amazing capacity to imitate the behaviour of people around him. The patient stated a number of times that he practised the same profession as his doctors. In discussion with the psychologists, he claimed that he too was a psychologist. Asked precise questions about the competence of a medical doctor, he would respond without hesitation, although using vague arguments.”

Claiming to be a cardiologist, the patient announced:

“I’ve lots of patients, and my fees aren’t excessive…some of my patients do not pay because they’re poor. I’ve been working for such a long time…when I have any doubt regarding a difficult case I refer to my superior. I graduated a long time ago…my salary is comparable with that of my colleagues.”

The patient’s behaviour arose from impairment of the frontal lobe resulting in the loss of inhibition. This led to loss of control of his usual identity and consequent ‘attraction’ towards a social role in his immediate environment. He became ‘captured’ by the interaction with the medical doctor, psychologist or other staff, then assuming their character.

People with frontal lobe damage have a poor understanding of environmental, social and physical stimuli associated with loss of inhibition. They can imitate forms of behaviour in the social context of the situation without the intention (or purpose) to do so, and seem incapable of inhibiting this response.

What is known as utilisation behaviour occurs when the patient automatically searches for and utilises objects or other stimuli in the environment. Anterograde amnesia (loss of memory before the event, such as a head injury) as a result of frontal lobe damage allows the person to ‘forget’ the appropriated character and adopt a new identity as soon as the external conditions change.

The mythical character Zelig, the authors wrote, affected a psychological (and even physical) transformation from the context in which he found himself.

In recognition of the analogy, the disturbance of behaviour was described as a ‘Zelig-like syndrome’. In clinical situations, this is found in personality disorders, depersonalisation states, fugue state, temporal lobe epilepsy and the psychoses.

We cannot do an MRI scan of the brain or confirm whether he had manic-depression, but the case of Trebitsch Lincoln is an extreme example of how the frontal lobes, the most developed part of our brain, are critical in the shaping of our personality and identity as well as containing the areas that control behaviour, judgement and reason. We can suspect that Trebitsch would approve of this explanation, but he probably want us to join his personal cult first.

View the published article.

About the Author
Robert Kaplan is a Clinical Associate Professor, Graduate School Of Medicine, University of Wollongong. A forensic psychiatrist, writer and speaker, his books are Medical Murder: Disturbing Tales Of Doctors Who Kill (Allen & Unwin 2009) and The Exceptional Brain and How It Changed The World (Allen & Unwin 2011). He has written on a range of medical, psychiatric, historic and forensic topics and is looking for something else to take up his time so he can yet again avoid finishing his autobiography Memoirs of a Marginal Medical Student.