A man’s account of living with Cotard’s syndrome offers a chilling look at a rare condition that has patients convinced they’re zombies.
The man, identified only as Graham in an interview with New Scientist, said he awoke from a suicide attempt feeling as though his brain were dead.
“I just felt like my brain didn’t exist anymore,” Graham told the magazine, recalling his bizarre state of consciousness after surviving an attempt to electrocute himself in his bathtub. “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.”
Graham was diagnosed with Cotard’s syndrome, a mysterious psychiatric condition marked by “the fixed and unshakable belief that one has lost organs, blood or body parts” or has no soul, according to a definition in a 2003 report in the journal Neurology.
“I lost my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t need to eat, or speak or do anything,” Graham told New Scientist. “I ended up spending time in the graveyard because that was the closest I could get to death.”
What little is known about Cotard’s syndrome has come from rare case reports dating back to 1882. But Graham’s recent diagnosis gave doctors an opportunity to look inside the brain of a Cotard’s patient.
What they found was extraordinary.
“I’ve been analyzing 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,” Dr. Steven Laureys of the University of Liège in Belgium, who consulted on Graham’s case, told New Scientist. “Graham’s brain function resembles that of someone during anesthesia or sleep. Seeing this pattern in someone who is awake is quite unique to my knowledge.”
So while Graham’s brain was intact, his brain activity looked like that of someone in a coma.
“It seems plausible that the reduced metabolism was giving him this altered experience of the world, and affecting his ability to reason about it,” Laureys said.
Graham said he struggled to find pleasure in life, calling the fact that he didn’t actually die “a nightmare.”
“I just felt really damn low,” he said, recalling his desire to lurk in graveyards. “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.”
But over time, with the help of therapy and medication, Graham said he managed to shake his zombie-like state.
“I don’t feel that brain-dead anymore,” he told New Scientist. “Things just feel a bit bizarre sometimes.”
“I’m not afraid of death,” Graham added.”But that’s not to do with what happened – we’re all going to die sometime. I’m just lucky to be alive now.”