Published on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 00:00
A man identified only as Graham woke up one morning 9 years ago and found himself dead.
Graham spoke to the New Scientist
about living with a condition called Cotard’s Syndrome a.k.a. Walking Corpse Syndrome. This unusual condition causes people to have the illusion that they are dead (either figuratively or literally), do not exist, are decomposing, or have lost their blood or internal organs. Rare instances include delusions of immortality.
"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. 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," Graham said.
You might think that this condition was recently just been discovered, what with the pop culture’s morbid obsession towards zombies these recent years. But no, the Walking Corpse Syndrome was first coined by a French neurologist, Jules Cotard, in 1880. He described a patient he called Mademoiselle X who denied the existence of several parts of her body and her need for sustenance, she later went on to believe that she was eternally damned and could no longer die a natural death. She eventually wasted away from starvation.
There are 3 stages of the Cotard Syndrome:
1. Germination – patient exhibits psychotic depression and health anxieties.
2. Blooming – patient’s syndrome develops to full-bloom and he refutes all form of scientific proof pertaining to himself.
3. Chronic – patient experiences severe delusions and chronic depression.
For Graham, he believed that his brain was dead and he was the culprit. During a bout of depression, he attempted to commit suicide by bringing an electrical appliance into the bathtub with him, and postulated that the attempted suicide was what killed his brain.
Graham consulted a doctor eight months later and spoke about how he felt that his brain has died, or possibly missing.
“It’s really hard to explain,” he said. “I just felt like my brain didn't exist anymore. I kept on telling the doctors that the tablets weren't going to do me any good because I didn't have a brain. I'd fried it in the bath.”
Doctors tried rationalizing with Graham but to no avail, even as he sat there very much alive, he refused to accept any of the doctors’ explanations.
“I just got annoyed,” he said. “I didn’t know how I could speak or do anything with no brain, but as far as I was concerned I hadn’t got one.”
At their wits’ ends, the doctors sought the help of neurologists Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter, UK, and Steven Laureys at the University of Liège, Belgium.
“It's the first and only time my secretary has said to me: 'It's really important for you to come and speak to this patient because he's telling me he's dead,’” Laureys spoke of the call he got from Graham.
Zeman spoke of Graham to be a very unusual patient. He mentioned about how Graham’s belief “was a metaphor for how he felt about the world – his experiences no longer moved him. He felt he was in a limbo state caught between life and death.”
Graham’s brother and caretakers saw to it that he ate and carried out a normal person’s daily routine, but the effort exerted in helping Graham integrate back to society did not help.
Graham said that he did not want to interact with anyone. He felt no pleasure at all in anything, and his car that once used to be his pride and joy had no effect on him whatsoever, he did not even went near it. Everything that appealed to him became obsolete.
Even nicotine addiction did not get a response out of him. The cigarettes that he used to enjoy puffing were no longer a relish for him. “I lost my sense of smell and my sense of taste. There was no point in eating because I was dead. It was a waste of time speaking as I never had anything to say. I didn't even really have any thoughts. Everything was meaningless.”
Zeman and Laureys did a PET scan on his brain and uncovered a shocking discovery. They found that the metabolic activity across large areas of the frontal and parietal brain regions was so low that it resembled that of someone in a vegetative state.
“I've been analysing PET scans for 15 years and I've never seen anyone who was on his feet, who was interacting with people, with such an abnormal scan result,” Laureys marvelled. “Graham's brain function resembles that of someone during anaesthesia or sleep. Seeing this pattern in someone who is awake is quite unique to my knowledge.”
“It seems plausible that the reduced metabolism was giving him this altered experience of the world, and affecting his ability to reason about it,” Zeman hypothesized.
Graham brains scans actually showed that he is effectively dead and should not be able to walk or talk but he defied all laws of modern science and continues to function. If that is not mind-boggling, I don’t know what is.
Everyone was flabbergasted by the findings except for Graham. Graham did not care too much about the brain scans. “I just felt really damn low,” he said. By this time, his teeth had turned black because he could no longer be bothered to brush them, which reinforced his belief that he was really dead.
Graham’s catatonic feelings have drawn him to the local graveyard on a couple of occasions. “I just felt I might as well stay there. It was the closest I could get to death. The police would come and get me, though, and take me back home.”
An unexplained phenomenon that accompanied his syndrome was that his leg hairs all fell out. “I looked like a plucked chicken! Saves shaving them I suppose…” Graham joked.
Since then, Graham’s condition has improved significantly with the help of a lot of psychotherapy and drug treatments, and he no longer believes that he is the ‘walking dead’. He is capable of living independently by himself with the need of caregivers to oversee his mental well-being.
Zeman diagnosed that his Cotard has “ebbed away and his capacity to take pleasure in life has returned.”
“I couldn't say I'm really back to normal, but I feel a lot better now and go out and do things around the house,” said Graham. "I don't feel that brain-dead any more. Things just feel a bit bizarre sometimes.”
"I'm not afraid of death," he said. "But that's not to do with what happened – we're all going to die sometime. I'm just lucky to be alive now."
I am glad that the story has a happy ending for Graham. I do know of a few sad, sorry souls who walk among us living and breathing but are brain-dead. Unfortunately for them, they don’t know it, and I don’t have the heart to tell them so.