What it's like to believe that you're dead

The New Scientist's Mindscapes column has a brief but fascinating profile of man identified only as "Graham" who suffers from a rare delusion known as Cotard's syndrome. Despite walking and talking and eating every day, Graham is convinced that he's dead.

Nine years ago, Graham woke up and discovered he was dead.

He was in the grip of Cotard's syndrome. People with this rare condition believe that they, or parts of their body, no longer exist.

For Graham, it was his brain that was dead, and he believed that he had killed it. Suffering from severe depression, he had tried to commit suicide by taking an electrical appliance with him into the bath.

Eight months later, he told his doctor his brain had died or was, at best, missing. "It's really hard to explain," he says. "I just felt like my brain didn't exist any more. I kept on telling the doctors that the tablets weren't going to do me any good because I didn't have a brain. I'd fried it in the bath."

Doctors found trying to rationalise with Graham was impossible. Even as he sat there talking, breathing – living – he could not accept that his brain was alive. "I just got annoyed. I didn't know how I could speak or do anything with no brain, but as far as I was concerned I hadn't got one."

Helen Thomson at New Scientist talks to Graham and his physicians to get a better understanding of this debilitating condition. Because Graham was convinced that he was dead, for a time he had to be monitored to make sure he eats and he neglected basic hygiene like brushing his teeth. The profile hits home what a tragic condition Cotard's is—although perhaps it's not a hopeless one. Graham is the first person with Cotard's to receive a PET scan, and what his doctors find is stunning (Edit: You should absolutely head over to the article and read about it. Graham's brain may not be dead, but part of it is nearly as deficient as that of a person in a vegetative state.). And Thomson follows him through his treatment, which does help him feel a bit less like a member of the walking dead.

Read the entire piece at New Scientist.

Photo by mendhak.

Mindscapes: First interview with a dead man [New Scientist via Nerdcore]