strange cases

The Strange Case of the Woman Haunted by Dragons

Photo: HBO

Ever since she could remember, when the Dutch girl saw a person’s face, it would stay human only temporarily. After a few minutes, it would transform in front of her eyes to a long, pointed, dragonlike visage. In a recent issue of The Lancet spotted by the Neuroskeptic blog at Discover, a Dutch medical team reported the strange case of the woman who saw human faces morph into dragons. 

The patient: A middle-aged Dutch woman with a history of hallucinations and mild depression. As a child, she thought everyone saw faces the way she did. Even as an adult, the hallucinations didn’t stop her from having a pretty normal life: She graduated from high school, got married, had a daughter of her own, and found work as a school administrator. But as she aged, her symptoms worsened, to the point that she had trouble communicating and, as a consequence, holding down a job. At 52, she sought help. 

The problem: At first, when she looked at a person’s face, she could recognize it as human. But after a few moments, the face “turned black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red.” And the hallucinations weren’t limited to faces; several times a day, she told the medical team, she saw “similar dragon-like faces drifting towards her … from the walls, electrical sockets, or the computer screen … and at night she saw many dragon-like faces in the dark.” 

The diagnosis: Blood tests and brain scans all came back normal — except for some slight white-matter abnormalities turned up by an MRI, nothing appeared to be wrong with her. The psychiatrists and neuroscientists working with the patient diagnosed her with prosopometamorphopsia, a face-perception disorder that causes human faces to appear distorted, with misshapen, drooping, shrunken, or enlarged features. The medical team put her on rivastigmine, a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, which finally brought her symptoms under control. According to the case report, she’s now managed to hold down a job for three years. It’s a happy ending for a woman once haunted by imaginary dragons. 

The Strange Case of the Woman Haunted by Dragons