The Strange Syndrome That Makes You Think You're Dead

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Halloween may be over, but we're still in a pretty spooky mood — especially after learning about "walking corpse syndrome." As the Washington Post explains, the illness (a.k.a. Cotard's delusion) actually makes people think they're dead.

The syndrome was first described in 1882 by Dr. Jules Cotard and it has remained rare, but more than 100 cases have been documented since the French neurologist's discovery. Although people with Cotard's are able to speak and interact with the world like anyone else, they are 100% convinced that they're dead. As one might imagine, people who have Cotard's also tend to have anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In some cases, though, patients also feel like they're immortal.

Because delusions like this can accompany several other mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia), it can be hard to pin down what's actually happening as a result of Cotard's, and what might be a side effect of something else. At this point, there's no agreement about what causes the illness. And, as the Washington Post article describes, it can be years before someone is actually diagnosed with Cotard's.

There's also an interesting, potentially related illness out there: Famously described in a 1997 case study, Capgras syndrome is often thought of as almost a mirror of Cotard's. Here, rather than focusing the delusion inward, people's view of others is distorted. Specifically, people with Capgras believe that their close friends and family have somehow been replaced with identical imposters. Patients recognize who those people are, but feel that something is "off" about them, or that they're lacking the usual emotional connection with people they love. Researchers think this lack of a familiar emotional response is also a major part of Cotard's delusion.

So, yes, all of this sounds extremely terrifying and unpleasant. And treating Cotard's is often a difficult task. But the good news is that, with a carefully-implemented combo of therapy and antidepressants or antipsychotic medication, it's possible for some patients to return to the land of the living.

More from Mind

No one goes through life trying to be a horrible person. But sometimes, it's a challenge to go that extra mile (or even just a few steps) out of your way...
Living with anxiety can feel like a constant battle. You have to stay alert to catch anxiety creeping up on you, and it can turn into an all-day fight to ...
We explore the unconscious messages a voice can give off and why snap judgments can be harmful, even if they're innocent
(Paid Content) Taking short breaks during the workday can bring your sanity back to earth. Of course, they have a calming effect, but did you know breaks ...
It's not always easy to predict how much you're going to drink when you go out — or how drunk you'll actually get. And according to a new study, your ...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. A few years ago, I called my dad for one of our weekly chats — but he wasn’t happy to hear from me...
As much as it sucks, anxiety doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Without a little bit of it, you wouldn’t make sure to show up on time to that job interview or...
(Paid Content) Moods are fickle things. You can be going about your day in a happy, productive, and calm manner, and boom — everything changes. And ...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. I am six years old, in the first grade girls’ bathroom with my friend. We are washing our hands. ...
This story was originally published on Jul. 19, 2016. Several months ago, a woman I’m very close to checked herself into a hospital because she’d been ...
This article was originally published on May 27, 2015. Now that pot legislation is making its way across the country, it's time for a refresher on the ...
Depression is one of the most common mental-health issues in the United States, and it affects roughly twice as many women as men. Yet new research ...
On social media, it's easy to catch all sorts of digital diseases, such as FOMO, internet addiction, and anxiety. Facebook and Instagram-wary researchers...
As a culture, we have a slight tendency to exaggerate. We don’t just love PSLs — we’re obsessed. We aren’t just neat and tidy — we Kondo. Another term we ...