With doctors, [he] assumes the role of a doctor; with psychologists he says he is a psychologist; at the solicitors he claims to be a solicitor. [He] doesn’t just make these claims, he actually plays the roles.
Clearly AD suffers this condition for good medical reasons. Cardiac arrest caused damage to the fronto-temporal region of his brain.
But perhaps you recognize something in AD as you did in Zelig, Woody Allen’s character in a film of the same name.
If we de-pathologize this condition for a moment, it looks adaptive. The world grows more various and more demanding. We are defined by looser boundaries, fewer "off hours," and a diversity of stimulus, opportunity, obligation and response.
Zelig’s condition might be useful. What if we could be exactly what people want us to be with no opportunity cost. We could be X with the Xs, and still be Y with the Ys. Perfectly fluid, undetectably various, effortlessly responsive.
I mean this is what we hope for in all circumstances. We all know people who are too sweet to be tough and others too tough to be sweet…to name just one of the failures of "coverage" that can challenge the biographical fortunes of the individual. The costs of even this ordinary failure in versatility are high: wrong jobs, failed educations, bad marriages.
But the world has grown in its complexity, breadth and depth. There is more "identity space" out there, and therefore more possibility of contradiction and personal shortfall. Who can be all things to all people, now that all people are so very various?
AD seems to have lost the capacity to keep his own identity constant…
Very wise. Yes, it looks like a symptom or a condition to the British Association of Psychology. (Yum, more to cure.) And in AD’s case it plainly is. But for the rest of us…who wants to keep his identity constant in a world like our own?
It’s all very Stuart Kauffman, the complexity theorist from the Sante Fe institute who asks us to consider the structural advantages of the "complex adaptive system." Real adaptation, Kauffman will tell us, comes from being messy and multiple.
Naturally, this is a power that will have to be used for good. We don’t like the sound of the character in Catch Me If you Can, Spielberg’s 2002 movie, staring Leonard DiCaprio. Zelig is a sweet, bumbling idiot, motiving by a wish to please and an effort to do his best. It is precisely this sincerity we hope for, and not the cunning of the con man.
Certainly, this is what we do in an ethnographic interview, trying to turn ourselves into the other. So three times today, in people’s kitchens in Brussels, I tried as much as possible to become them. It was pretty. It wasn’t successful. But boy was it interesting. But forget interesting. Someday, very soon, it’s going to be adaptive.
Anonymous. 2007. Brain damage turns man into human chameleon. The British Psychological Society. March 20, 2007. here.
Thanks to Johan Strandell for spotting this article and giving me a head’s up.