“I think, therefore I am dead”

On Science Friday last week, I heard a segment about Cotard’s Syndrome, also known as the Walking Corpse syndrome. This is where some people are convinced that they are dead and actually tell other people so, saying things like “It is no use talking to me. I am dead.”

How can someone think they are dead when they are thinking and speaking and walking around? It appears that when you talk with them they can reason and they realize that by talking with you they cannot be dead but yet they have the firm conviction that they are dead. It is not that they want to die. They actually dread it and yet they cannot shake the feeling of being dead.

It is an extreme form of things like Alien Hand Syndrome where people think that their hand is not an organic part of their body but as a disposable attachment with an independent existence, like a wristwatch. In Cotard’s syndrome they think of their entire body as a disposable attachment and that they have discarded it.

The appearance of this syndrome has been noted for over a hundred years (since 1880) and no one is quite sure exactly what causes it. Its onset has been associated with either severe physical or mental stress but in some cases it seems to be a side effect of taking a common anti-viral medication.

You can read more about Cotard’s syndrome here.

I had never heard of this before and it boggled my mind.


  1. DonDueed says

    Mano, if you haven’t read it, check out Oliver Sachs’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. It’s full of similarly mind-boggling cases, mostly caused by neurological damage of one sort or another.

    My favorite story is of the woman who wasn’t getting enough to eat in her nursing home, and why that was happening and how it was resolved.

  2. unbound says

    I’ve heard of the condition (and several others equally interesting) as part of a discussion of our senses. We have a lot more than the traditional 5 senses, including the sense of where our body parts are (e.g. close your eyes and touch a nearby object…how did you do that? Because of the sense you have regarding where your hand/arm is).

    It is amazing how the brain works to operate all of those senses, so a disease, neurological condition, or brain damage (e.g. stroke) can result in some interesting behavior of the individual experiencing the condition.

    This is an interesting read – http://io9.com/5874229/10-incredibly-strange-brain-disorders

  3. Enkidum says

    The basic point to remember here is that contradictions don’t matter if you don’t notice them. This applies from low-level perception on up. We are more than capable of believing p and ~p at the same time, and will go to great mental lengths to avoid getting into the situation where we have to actually acknowledge that there is a contradiction.

    Combine that general truth with neurological damage, and stuff like Cotard’s syndrome is a lot less surprising – although still weird as hell, and kind of creepy.

  4. Anthony K says

    It is amazing how the brain works to operate all of those senses

    It really is. I read the book by Oliver Sacks that DonDueed referred to above (as well as several others by Dr. Sacks), and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s nothing consciously ‘rational’ about how we function: we don’t recognise faces because faces are things and we have eyes that see things and so of course we recognise faces—we recognise faces because there’s a part of the brain that specializes in recognising faces, and if that’s knocked out we cease to recognise faces. (This is a gross oversimplification: the wikipedia page for Capgras’ syndrome suggests there are both conscious and unconscious pathways for facial recognition.)

    What’s amazing is how seemlessly these functions work together to give us the illusion of rational consciousness, absent any injury or other pathology.

  5. trucreep says

    Do you think this has any effect on the person’s proprioception? I think that’s it anyway…It’s ah, the sense of knowing where your body is, or where your limbs are. So if I raise my left arm without looking at it, I know where it is without seeing it or having it touch something.

    I’m not sure if I’m describing it well. I remember an episode of Radiolab where they were talking with this guy who one day woke up and couldn’t move his body. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he described the feeling of not having any body below his head. The poor guy went through tons of doctors and specialists for years, until finally he figured out he could move himself by looking at the part of his body he wanted to move, and imagined moving it. They eventually figured out he had lost his sense of “location” I suppose, or his proprioception.

    I had never heard of this before but I suppose it makes sense, being able to know where you are located in the sense of your physical matter taking up space….I don’t know, this made me think of that.

  6. wtfwhateverd00d says

    “It is no use talking to me. I am dead.”

    The more I read blogs, the more I interact with society, the more convinced I am I have Utard’s Syndrome otherwise known as Cotard’s Syndrome by Proxy.

    That is, there is no use talking to people. Everyone else is brain dead.

    I am legend that way.

  7. says

    Proprioception is the reason i became a good athlete. I have exceptionally good proprioceptive sense, which manifests in being able to do the things that various sports require at an almost instinctual level. While trying to work on my shooting mechanics when playing varsity soccer for my university, I discovered by accident that the most important factor in my good shot was that I tended to use my off-side arm (i.e., shooting right-footed, the left arm) as a counterweight to establish a longer – and thus more powerful – moment arm to shoot with. To improve my mechanics, I had to learn how to establish my off-arm in the right balance spot to get full extension for my shooting; in the end, the best way I found to do so was to do it in the dark, or with my eyes closed.

    I pick things up (physically) without looking all the time, and keep things like drinks upright even when rotating through more than one axis quickly. The senses of balance (where is my centre of mass compared to my base) and proprioception are absolutely crucial to becoming a good athlete.

    The last enumeration I saw listed something like 17 identifiable senses we use, including a few sort-of accelerometers, thermal sense, and several others. Very cool topic.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Good grief! Now I feel much more of a klutz than I usually do, because I sometimes knock over things even when I am looking at them and bomb into things too.

  9. Anthony K says

    Don’t feel too bad. There are benefits that come with being clumsy. Years of bashing into stuff has left me pretty resilient. For instance I’ve learned—through a process I’d rather not repeat—that I can take an SUV to the torso at 40 km/h and come out relatively unbroken.

  10. J Walthers says

    A good (but simplistic) explanation for Capgras delusions involves two facts: 1.) that your brain learns statistical regularities about the world and uses assumptions based on those regularities to influence perception and decision making on unconscious levels and; 2.) there exists neural circuitry which connects the fusiform face area (the part of your brain that encodes for facial recognition) and the amygdala and other limbic structures (the emotional centers of your brain).

    Based on a lifetime of experience, your brain has learned to expect a certain emotional response to certain faces (your mother, for example). This experience is mediated by the connection between the FFA and limbic structures. However, head trauma or disease processes can sometimes sever the connection between these regions and when this happens, the ability to emotionally respond to faces is lost. This of course has little impact on behavior when presented with the faces of strangers because the brain doesn’t necessarily expect a specific emotional response to unfamiliar faces. When presented with a face for which a strong emotional response is expected however, the absence of that response presents a paradox to the brain, which it resolves by making the determination that the reason no emotional response occurs is that this is not in fact the person it appears to be.

    This is a little on the simplistic side, and you can read more about it in the works of V.S. Ramachandran (Phantoms in the Brain is a good place to start).

  11. Trickster Goddess says

    keep things like drinks upright even when rotating through more than one axis quickly

    I know what that is like. Several times I have stumbled and fallen while carrying a glass of liquid. I ended up sprawled on the floor but still holding the glass upright with most of the liquid still in it.

    A related ability is when I am working in the kitchen where I often do 2 things at once, such as pouring a liquid while simultaneously stretching away and twisting around to get something out of the cupboard behind me. My pouring hand stays right above the container I’m pouring into despite my body moving around and me not looking.

  12. says

    Yes, definitely – or with both hands occupied, picking up something with a foot and putting it where it belongs, or handing it off to a hand, or opening and closing cupboards or the fridge. It drives my partner bats, because at night I rarely put lights on, and often leave things lying in my path, because coupled with good night vision, I’m confident of being able to avoid obstacles or falls through my proprioception and balance. She has terrible night vision, so I’ve had to learn to keep things out of her path, and add small nightlights strategically placed. I generally catch dropped things, too, if I’m close enough, because I’ve still got surprisingly good reflexes.

    It’s a definite privilege to have; save the one thing about being trans, I totally won the lottery on physical characteristics. My family has no long-term illnesses, no cancers or diabetes, we’re long-lived (usually living til our mid-90s), my eyes are still 20/10 (though my close-in vision is fading a bit, I can still read 12-point type from 4 or 5 metres away) at 47, and I only stopped playing soccer this year because my ancient back injury has finally made it too painful to bear. Heart runs at about 55 bpm resting, blood pressure and cholesterol are low, despite my diet being appalling. I was a two-sport athlete in varsity, while also getting my honours degree with a triple major. 🙂

    A clear lottery win, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, I wouldn’t mind a proper lottery win, either, but it’s tricky to win if you don’t play.

  13. Trickster Goddess says

    Wow, we could almost be twins. So much in common including using a foot as a third hand, pathfinding in the dark, vision acuity, recovering falling objects, cancer-free family history, even the trans part.

    In university, instead of sports I did a minor in Dance. No triple major, but I did 18 consecutive full load semesters over 5 years but spread my studies over a wide variety of subjects beyond my core major.

    Looking at your website bio, I see that we also have theatre directing and acting in common, too. I also did improv comedy instead of stand up.

  14. Mano Singham says

    I read the book some years ago and it was weird. I don’t think he dealt with this though.

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