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Devil’s Face Syndrome: People who see demon grimaces instead of the faces of those around them

One morning, 75-year-old Victor Sharra from Tennessee, USA, woke up and instead of his roommate’s usual face, he saw a distorted “devilish visage”.

Three years later, Victor still sees “demonic grimaces” on the faces of those around him, wherever he goes. Doctors call this condition Devil’s Face Syndrome, and it is extremely rare.

It is believed that this syndrome arises after certain head injuries, strokes, or epileptic seizures. Damage occurs in the brain area responsible for the visual perception of other people’s faces.

Sometimes those suffering from Devil’s Face Syndrome may only see demonic faces on living people, but when they watch television or look at drawings, the distortion is not particularly severe. However, for most of them, devilish faces are visible in any form.

In the picture below, one of the patients suffering from Devil’s Face Syndrome sees the faces of other people – he sees a heavily stretched and seemingly grinning mouth, elongated ears, and horizontally stretched eyes.

Doctors say that Devil’s Face Syndrome arises from damage to the occipital and temporal lobes in the back of the brain, which are located near the areas that neurobiologists believe are responsible for face recognition.

However, some cases of Devil’s Face Syndrome are not related to obvious damage to specific parts of the brain, which adds mystery and complexity to the study of this condition.

“Often people with Devil’s Face Syndrome do not tell others about their problem with face perception. They are afraid that others will think it is a sign of a mental disorder. This is a problem that people often do not understand,” says neuropsychologist Brad Duchein from the Laboratory of Social Perception in Dartmouth, England.

Officially, this syndrome is called Prosopometamorphopsia. Professor Duchein and his colleague Antonio Mellon recently encountered a 58-year-old man who had Devil’s Face Syndrome. Studying his condition, they released a study published today in the medical journal The Lancet.

“The distortions he perceives serve as a good illustration that we do not have access to the world. Instead, all our experience is constructed by the brain,” says Duchein.

The features of facial distortion depend on each individual sufferer. For example, a 52-year-old woman saw people’s faces as dragon-like visages. In another case, a 44-year-old woman reported seeing faces that looked like caricature drawings.

“In the overwhelming majority of described cases of prosopometamorphopsia, distortions began after an obvious neurological event, and almost all those who underwent scanning had damage to the visual areas of the brain,” Duchein said.

However, when Duchein needed to find more patients with this syndrome for study, and he posted a call on the Internet, people who had this syndrome started writing to him, but they assured him that they had no brain injuries.

“We have heard from several people that facial distortions have haunted them their entire lives, and there was even a case where this occurred in two people from the same family.”

Psychologists have known about this syndrome since 1953, and since then, the number of known cases has been only about 75 people. But most likely, people simply fear talking about it, as noted above, so as not to be considered crazy. So the actual number could be much higher.

“We have heard from many people with prosopometamorphopsia that psychiatrists diagnosed them with schizophrenia and prescribed antipsychotics when they only had problems with the visual system.”

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