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  • What Is a Feeling of Unfamiliarity?
  • Matthew Ratcliffe (bio)

Capgras delusion, feeling, phenomenology, recognition, unfamiliarity

This article takes issue with Garry Young's account of anomalous experience in the Capgras delusion. Contrary to Young, I argue that preferences presuppose, rather than constitute, the judgment that a currently perceived person is not a remembered person. I go on to sketch a phenomenological account of how the delusional experience can have the content "this person is not my spouse" and of how this content might be constituted by altered feeling.

Various anomalous experiences are said to involve a feeling or sense of unfamiliarity and it is generally accepted that some such experience contributes to the Capgras delusion. To understand the relevant experience, it is important to be clear about what a "feeling of unfamiliarity" is. Garry Young's interesting and informative article makes a helpful contribution to the task of clarification, by offering an account of how the lack of familiarity involved in prosopagnosia differs from that involved in the Capgras delusion. However, I suggest that his analysis is incomplete in one central respect. In short, it presupposes, rather than explains, the impostor experience. Then I consider various different interpretations of the nature and role of a "feeling of unfamiliarity" in the Capgras delusion. Finally, I briefly sketch a phenomenological account of how a "feeling of unfamiliarity" might constitute the experiential content "this person is not my spouse."

Identity and Preference

Ellis and Young (1990) propose that the Capgras delusion is a "mirror image" of prosopagnosia. The latter involves impairment to overt visual recognition, with covert, affective recognition remaining intact. In the Capgras delusion, the converse applies. A problem for the account, as Young observes, is that the absence of affective recognition in Capgras patients is claimed to generate an experience of unfamiliarity and estrangement. However, intact affective response in prosopagnosia is phenomenologically inaccessible. Prospopagnosic patients do not report a feeling of recognition or familiarity, associated with the increased physiological arousal that can be detected by monitoring their skin conductance responses. So, how can something that is phenomenologically inaccessible when intact produce altered experience when impaired?

Young's solution takes its lead from the findings of some forced choice experiments, conducted with prosopagnosic patients. For example, in one experiment he cites, participants were presented with photographs of two faces, only one of which they had been previously exposed to. They did not report any feelings of recognition or familiarity [End Page 43] and, when asked to identify the face they had previously seen, their success rate was only around 53%. Nevertheless, when asked to express a preference for one face over the other, selection of the "familiar" face was significantly above chance level. Thus, although heightened affect in prosopagnosia does not produce an experience of recognition, it does play a role in shaping preferences. Young therefore distinguishes two different aspects of experience. There is the "what-it-is-likeness" of recognition, which is lacking in prosopagnosia. And there is the "what-it-is-likeness" of preference, which remains intact but does not take the form of a "feeling of recognition." He suggests that the Capgras experience can be explained in terms of the latter's absence. Assuming that the delusion takes the form "that perceived person is not that remembered person" (Campbell 2001), Young proposes that its experiential content arises due to affective preference for the latter over the former:

Even though the Capgras patient is not being instructed directly to choose, what he is in fact doing is showing a preference for the memory of his wife over the currently perceived wife, because the currently perceived wife does not induce the appropriate state of arousal.

(2007, 34)

So we have two objects, a "remembered W" and a "currently perceived W" (hereafter Wr and Wp). And there is a preference for the former, owing to comparative lack of affective response to the latter. (For convenience, I focus on the case of a "replaced wife" throughout this discussion. In so doing, I certainly do not mean to suggest that the content of the delusion is always a wife rather than a husband or a woman rather than a man.) The...


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