Zombies may be more than just the subject of fiction raking in big bucks for writers and movie studios, according to medical experts who say it is a state of mind.
Back in the day, renowned 1800's French neurologist Jules Cotard first described a type of depression where patients believed they have "no brain, no nerves, no chest, no stomach, no intestines, only skin and bones of a decomposing body.” In short a zombie.
The condition became known as Cotard's syndrome, which although not officially recognized as a disorder even today, is a condition many medical experts acknowledge does exist. It is called many things, the two most trendy being “walking corpse syndrome” and “life as a zombie.”
Doctors who are treating patients for the disorder say although not officially recognized, Cotard’s syndrome is a real illness. Often accompanying, and most times unspoken, symptoms include common mental illness signs of extreme depression, anxiety, and ironically, as the patients believe they are dead, suicidal thoughts.
An expert in the syndrome, National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery of Mexico psychiatrist Jesús Ramírez-Bermúdez first came across the condition 20 years ago while working at a psychiatric hospital as part of a medical internship.
He says he saw patients who claimed they were already dead or believed their bodies were disappearing. They were being diagnosed with schizophrenia, but after doing some research, he came to the conclusion that they had Cotard’s. He says he has treated 14 patients with the condition, using both medication and psychotherapy.
One patient who claimed he was dead also had delusions of having a twin brother who was alive. That patient often attempted suicide.
“He would say that he had thrown himself out of the car because he thought that he was trapped in an eternity in which things were not real, and he was not real,” says Ramírez-Bermúdez. “He also felt that perhaps by dying - again - he would recover his former self.”
The medical experts who believe there is such a thing as Cotard’s syndrome can not agree on what causes it because it is often associated with other neuropsychological conditions like brain injury, dementia, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
Max Coltheart, an emeritus professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, says he thinks, "the first factor could be a failure to react emotionally to anything - such things as loud noises, disturbing imagery or sudden touches that would typically elicit an emotional response would have no effect. In such cases, people may assume they are dead or no longer exist."
“It might be your favorite cat or your favorite food: If you don’t have an emotional response, that would be really weird,” Coltheart says. “Here is something that looks like your favorite cat, but you aren’t getting a buzz. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be getting any emotional responses, and that’s what may prompt this belief.”
Ramírez-Bermúdez says he has seen cases of Cotard’s syndrome lasting only days or weeks, with a minority of patients showing chronic Cotard’s for months or years.