Rare condition makes people see terrifying faces like the TikTok ‘evil’ smile’ filter

By Staff 6 Min Read

The Evil Smile filter on TikTok is how people with a rare condition see human faces, according to new research as experts study a man with prosopometamorphopsia

An ultra rare visual condition makes people see human faces like the popular TikTok Evil Smile filter, new research has revealed.

Scientists worked with a man with prosopometamorphopsia, or PMO, a condition that visually distorts faces every time they look at a person. The study, published in the journal The Lancet, involved a 58-year old man who sees faces without any distortions when they are viewed on a screen and on paper, but he sees distorted faces that appear “demonic” when viewed in-person.

The Evil Smile filter has gone viral with people attempting to eat different types of food without it being enabled and is becoming increasingly popular on the app. Study lead author Dr Antonio Mello, of Dartmouth College in the US, said: “In other studies of the condition, patients with PMO are unable to assess how accurately a visualisation of their distortions represents what they see because the visualisation itself also depicts a face, so the patients will perceive distortions on it too.”

The research is the first to provide accurate and photorealistic visualisations of the facial distortions experienced by an individual with PMO. “Prosopo” comes from the Greek word for face ‘prosopon’ while ‘metamorphopsia’ refers to perceptual distortions. Researchers say that the condition has specific symptoms that vary from case to case and can affect the shape, size, colour, and position of facial features with the duration lasting for days, weeks, or even years.

The study involved taking a photograph of a person’s face. The team then showed the patient the photograph on a computer screen while he looked at the real face of the same person. The researchers obtained real-time feedback from the patient on how the face on the screen and the real face in front of him differed.

They used computer software to modify and match the distortions perceived by the patient. The patient could accurately compare how similar his perception of the real face was to the manipulated photograph. Dr Mello said: “Through the process, we were able to visualise the patient’s real-time perception of the face distortions.”

In their research with other PMO cases, the co-authors state that some of their PMO participants have seen health professionals who wanted to help but diagnosed them with another health condition, not PMO. Senior author Professor Brad Duchaine said: “We’ve heard from multiple people with PMO that they have been diagnosed by psychiatrists as having schizophrenia and put on anti-psychotics, when their condition is a problem with the visual system.”

The Dartmouth team hope to increase public awareness of what PMO is with the study and further research. Prof Duchaine added: “It’s not uncommon for people who have PMO to not tell others about their problem with face perception because they fear others will think the distortions are a sign of a psychiatric disorder. It’s a problem that people often don’t understand.”

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