Walking Corpse Syndrome, also known as Cotard’s Delusion, is a rare neuropsychiatric condition in which affected people feel like they are dead or dying. A less than ideal state of mind when you are very much still alive.
The perplexing condition involves delusions that lead a person to believe they are dead or lacking certain features of a living person, such as organs or blood. As well as having a profound effect on a person’s mental state, it has also been found to present with extremely abnormal brain scans.
What is Walking Corpse Syndrome?
Walking Corpse Syndrome was first described by Dr Jules Cotard back in 1882 (hence its other name: Cotard’s Delusion). Cotard characterized the condition as any one of several delusions which led a person to believe they were missing organs or body parts, didn’t have blood or a soul anymore, or that they had died altogether.
It’s thought to be an exceptionally rare condition, especially in the modern age, but one that’s been most commonly recorded among patients with preexisting and severe depression. Most reports are single case studies involving people who have self-reported that they are “dead,” often leading to self-starvation as they no longer believe they need to “stay alive”.
Walking Corpse Syndrome case studies
Mademoiselle X, 1880
Cotard delivered a Walking Corpse Syndrome lecture to the Société Medico-Psychologique in 1880, reports Nature, when he presented a patient in Paris dubbed Mademoiselle X. The 43-year-old woman was under the delusion that she had "no brain, nerves, chest, or entrails, and was just skin and bone", and that she was incapable of dying a natural death.
Mademoiselle X believed that she was unable to die and being without so many organs and body parts didn’t need to eat. Her denial of her life and need to eat eventually led to death from starvation, and Cotard named the neurological condition le délire de negation (negation delirium).
The man who thought South Africa was hell, 1996
A Scottish man developed Cotard Delusion following a motorcycle accident in the mid-90s that caused him brain damage, reports Psychology Today. He was later discharged from hospital but believed himself to have died after the accident, a delusion which was worsened by the fact he was moved to South Africa where the warmer climate led him to believe he was in hell.
The woman who wanted to be taken to a morgue, 2008
A 53-year-old woman named Ms L for the purposes of a 2008 case study published in Psychiatry was admitted to hospital following an unusual 911 call. Her family were requesting urgent help because their relative believed themselves to be dead, thought they smelt like rotting flesh, and wanted to be taken to a morgue.
They had a history of taking antidepressants and reported feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and a loss of appetite. Fortunately, clinicians were able to get rid of her delusions and hallucinations without the use of electroconvulsive treatment – which has historically been used for Walking Corpse Syndrome – and using lower doses of medication.
The “first interview with a dead man,” 2013
The “First interview with a dead man” went live on New Scientist back in 2013, as Helen Thomson spoke with a man called Graham who had experienced Cotard’s Delusion. Following an attempt to take his own life which saw him receive a serious electric shock in the bath, Graham believed that his brain “was dead”.
“When I was in hospital I kept on telling them that the tablets weren’t going to do me any good ’cause my brain was dead,” Graham told Thomson.
“I lost my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t need to eat, or speak, or do anything. I ended up spending time in the graveyard because that was the closest I could get to death.”
Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to look at the brain of a person with Walking Corpse Syndrome for the first time and found it to be uniquely abnormal. The metabolic activity in parts of the brain closer resembled those of a person in a vegetative state than a walking, talking person.
While Graham’s world-first scan isn’t without its limitations, being that of just one person who was also on an antidepressant regime, “it seems plausible that the reduced metabolism was giving him this altered experience of the world,” said neurologist Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter, UK, who worked on the case.
What causes Walking Corpse Syndrome?
While the exact cause of Walking Corpse Syndrome isn’t known, it’s thought that it might share some neurological characteristics with Capgras Syndrome, in which people aren’t able to identify close friends or relatives. Both conditions center around a loss of emotional feedback in response to visual stimuli, which can trigger feelings of derealization.
It's possible that illness or injury may damage the regions of the brain involved in this emotional feedback, leading to feelings of dissociation that may worsen to a state of feeling dead. However, with so few historic case studies, and those that are reported including a wide range of symptoms, possible triggers, and treatment outcomes, it remains difficult to draw any firm conclusions about this rare and unusual condition.
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