Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Walking Dead

By Tim Hannan

People with the Cotard delusion are convinced that they are dead.

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From the recent popularity of zombies in literature, television and movies, it would seem that many people are fascinated by the notion of the “undead”. As entertaining as the notion of “dead but not dead” bodies may be, believing that you are actually dead can be rather unsettling for sufferers of one delusional disorder.

The belief that one is dead or non-existent is known as the Cotard delusion, after the French neurologist who reported a woman manifesting this idea in 1880. Characterised by nihilistic delusions concerning one’s own body, the Cotard delusion may be accompanied by acting as if dead, displaying muscular rigidity, mutism and/or a refusal to eat.

Jules Cotard described a woman who believed that she lacked a brain, stomach and intestines. Perceiving no need to eat, she died of starvation. A century earlier the Genevan naturalist Charles Bonnet described a woman who, after a blow to the neck, suffered partial paralysis and a temporary loss of speech. After recovering her language she insisted that she was dead, and demanded that her servants dress her in a shroud and lay her out as a corpse.

The medical literature reports that many with the delusion exhibit a psychotic depression, with features of anxiety, delusions of guilt and auditory hallucinations. However, others display the nihilistic beliefs in the absence of mood or psychotic...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.