Walking Dead Syndrome

How many of you watched the TV series ‘Scrubs’? If you didn’t, then you should, I thought it’s quite good and I liked the innovative perspective that they’re using to describe what’s in the characters’ mind… If you’re asking yourself why am I talking about it is because one of the episodes (the TV series is about doctors) presented in it (Season 4, episode 14) portrays the case of a patient suffering from Cotard Delusion or Walking Dead Syndrome (WDS). Sounds funny, right? … well it isn’t.

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Don’t trust the living- Man dressed as zombie

WDS is a brain disorder and can be triggered by extremely severe depression, schizophrenia or brain injury. The patients affected by it are most of the times convinced that they lost some possessions, organs and their own lives. They are similar to zombies, being keen on the belief that they’re dead. Paradoxically, they are confident that they are immortal and trying to prove so, some of the patients suffering from this condition ended up committing suicide.

Due to the extremely low number of registered cases of WDS and to the complexity of the condition, no treatment was found which is confirmed to work, although in 4 cases electroshock administration was proven to be efficient.

Unfortunately, there is not much information regarding the patients’ experiences, but in their Cotard Delusion study case, Young and Leafheand examined a patient who previously suffered a brain injury (1). It is believed that the contribution of the change in the environment (after getting discharged from the hospital in Scotland his relatives took him to South Africa) aggravated the condition. The hot climate made him believe that he went to Hell and that he died from septicaemia, a disease that represented a risk for him in his recovery from the accident that caused his brain injury. He wouldn’t recognise his mother, who was with him at the moment. He thought that she was the one guiding him in Hell.

I find the uniqueness of WDS to give me goosebumps, causing me to wonder how much of an abstract concept reality appears to be – how thin the line between sanity and delusion is…

Source: (1) Young, A.W. & Leafhead, K.M. (1996). Betwixt Life and Death: Case Studies of the Cotard Delusion (in P.W. Halligan & J.C. Marshall. (eds.) Method in Madness: Case studies in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry). Hove: Psychology Press. p. 155.

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