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Cotard's Syndrome: What Could Really Lead To Zombie Apocalypse

Updated on December 17, 2017

The advancements in science and medicine has granted us with enough knowledge to cure many kind of illnesses and prolong human life. In a few years, we might even have a cure for cancer. But there are certain illnesses that have lesser priority because of their rarity and the inability of people to understand it. One among such illnesses is Cotard’s syndrome, also known as ‘The Walking Corpse syndrome’. The mind has always been a mystery to man, and as long as we don’t find a definite connection between the mind and the body, the treatment for diseases like these can only be done based on our assumptions.

If there was ever to be a zombie apocalypse, it could only be a pandemic of Cotard’s syndrome, where the people who are actually alive might believe themselves to be dead, and might feel that this is not the world that they belong to. But for now, the condition is extremely rare. The delusion was first noted in 1788, when Charles Bonnet described the case of an elderly patient who after recovering from paralysis, insisted that she be prepared for her own wake. But the condition was not properly discovered and noted until the early 1800’s, when Jules Cotard, a neurologist, described the case of his patient whom he refers to as Mademoiselle X, who believed that she did not exist. She believed that parts of her body were missing and that she was dead. Since she believed she was already dead, she could not die again, thus she also had the belief that she was immortal. Due to this delusion, she stopped eating, as dead people and people who couldn’t die did not require food. And in the end, she died of starvation.

Jules Cotard
Jules Cotard

Cotard’s syndrome can be aptly described as a condition where the person suffering from it has a delusion that they are either dead, dying or missing some parts of their body. They might think that they are a rotting corpse that doesn’t need food, water or sleep. The disease itself is not fatal, but due to such beliefs, a person might fail to maintain their health and hygiene leading to some other diseases that could be fatal.

More than half the people suffering from this disease believe that they are dead, and most of them hold the belief of immortality, resulting from the delusion that their death has already occurred and they are still in this world. They might think that they are unkillable souls that are forever left to haunt the world. In some cases, the sufferers might also believe that after dying they are now living in heaven or hell, and might not believe anyone who tries to tell them otherwise.

There is no definite proof of how and why this condition occurs, but it is usually accompanied by depression and other psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, seizure disorders or brain injury, and is usually controlled by anti-depression and anti-psychotic drugs. In rare cases where drugs and behavioural therapy fail to make any kinds of improvements, electroconvulsive therapy is used.

The delusion progresses in three stages:

1. Germination:

In this stage, the patient may suffer from depression and the condition cannot be properly differentiated unless the patient exhibits signs associated with Cotard’s delusion.

2. Blooming:

This is the stage where the condition can be differentiated as Cotard’s syndrome due to the presence of specific delusions, such as missing of organs, blood or being dead. Symptoms of other psychiatric illness might also be present.

3. Chronic:

This is the final stage where the patient starts having continual delusions and begins to act on the belief that they are actually dead. They might stop eating, drinking and may even neglect their own hygiene. This is the point where they might start looking and acting like a zombie.

Relation to Capgras' Syndrome

Cotard’s syndrome is sometimes associated with another condition called the Capgras’ syndrome, where the person holds the belief that the people close to them have been replaced by imposters. While technically they are different, one leads one to deny his own existence while the other makes one believe that those close to them have been replaced, the similarities lie in the fact that both the conditions lead one to question the existence of either themselves or others. In a way, it becomes what is known in philosophy as the existential crisis.

Pathologically, both Cotard’s and Capgras’ syndrome is said to occur due to neural misfiring in certain parts of the brain that deal with recognition and association of emotions. As of now, neither of them are completely curable. They can only be controlled with drugs and therapy, and until we find the connection between our mind and our body, that is all that can be done.


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