Real Life Zombies – Cotard’s Syndrome

It’s absolutely fascinating to study people with brain injuries, watching how weird people can get when their mind starts to malfunction.  I collect medical textbooks on neurological disorders because I want to peel behind the illusion that my brain is generating, seeing how this blob of jelly in my skull is creating all the experiences we are all having.

If you read through the literature, you’ll find patients with a disease called Cotard’s Syndrome.   In these patients, their amydala and other limbic structures, which are primary emotional systems, get disconnected from their object recognition systems, leading to some rather bizarre behavior.

For example, these patients will see themselves in the mirror but will lack any sort of emotional response to what they’re seeing.  So they’ll look on themselves but won’t think of their body as any different from the external world.  They are nothing special.  You see, in all of us, we live under this constant delusion that there’s “us” and then there’s the “external” world, but in reality, the only reason we do that is because we have these emotional circuits firing in our brains which tell us that our bodies are special objects which must be preserved.  It’s a survival instinct.  In these patients, all of that is disconnected so you’re left with these zombie people with little to no self preservation instincts.

What’s strange is that these people can still think, yet they feel no emotion.  Since they remember a time when they once could feel, they start to think they’ve died.  They reason that they no longer exist, and come to strange conclusions, wondering if their bodily limbs are really their own, oftentimes denying that they have blood or internal organs.  These patients don’t often live long because they stop taking care of themselves and won’t eat.

The New Scientist recently wrote an article in their new series Mindscapes, which covers patients with these sorts of disorders.   The patient, Graham, tried to commit suicide by jumping into the bathtub with a plugged in electrical appliance.  He was badly injured but ended up surviving, and his brain suffered some nasty damage.  PET scans showed so little activity, he was barely distinguishable from someone in a vegetative coma.

He was conscious and alive, but his emotional circuits were disconnected from the objects he was perceiving so he felt nothing.  Nothing excited him or even made him angry.  All was meaningless.  He’d also fried his sense of taste and smell, so you can imagine what it was like to eat food.  He was just shoveling this physical “stuff” into his mouth which jumbled around and went down his throat.  He was totally indifferent to whether he ate or not.  His teeth quickly turned black as he stopped brushing.

Quoting from the article,

Graham’s brother and carers made sure he ate, and looked after him. But it was a joyless existence. “I didn’t want to face people. There was no point,” he says, “I didn’t feel pleasure in anything. I used to idolize my car, but I didn’t go near it. All the things I was interested in went away.”

Even the cigarettes he used to relish no longer gave him a hit. “I lost my sense of smell and my sense of taste. There was no point in eating because I was dead. It was a waste of time speaking as I never had anything to say. I didn’t even really have any thoughts. Everything was meaningless.”

People rarely realize that the blob of jelly in our skulls has these hard-wired survival circuits which give us these conscious feelings of fear, pain, and other drives, all intended to keep our bodies going and replicating.  Our desires are of the same nature, but you don’t realize this until you study patients like Graham, and look into neuroscience.   Learning these things will completely change how you view yourself and what you think of this life.  I could go into any of your skulls, make a few snips and you’d become just like Graham.  Think about it and ask yourself what that means.

Graham had injuries in his default mode network, so he wasn’t even feeling that normal sense of “self” the rest of us have.  He was having conscious experiences but not as anyone in particular.  He was just perceiving objects and gliding through life, feeling nothing, not even a feeling that he himself existed.  He kept telling the doctors that he didn’t exist.  Fascinating stuff, especially if you’re interested in what the “self” is, which is a subject I always find myself studying.

This is also instructive into what happens with very depressed people or those that have suffered a severe trauma.  You get repressions and disconnections between the emotional circuits and other areas of the brain.  They become more and more prone to feel this sense that reality isn’t “real”.  Psychologists call this derealization.

For example, we form emotional connections to people and places, but once our emotional circuits are disconnected from the object recognition and spatial systems, you experience the same place but without the accompanying emotion, so it doesn’t feel right.  You see your mother but you don’t feel any love toward her, so you quickly reason, “This can’t be mom!  This isn’t real!  Am I in a dream?”

You may recall some old blog posts I wrote a long time back, talking about how the brain rationalizes what it experiences.  We have experiences and then, after the fact, rationalize what happened.  That same process happens in patients undergoing derealization.  They see their mother, remember once having emotional feelings toward her but no longer, they ask themselves if there’s any reason for this, they can’t come up with a reason, so their mind comes to the conclusion, “This must not be mother.”

Isn’t this life strange?  The brain activity within my body’s brain, in my neocortex, creates these feelings of being alive in this world.  I’m obsessed with why I’m experiencing any of this at all.  Once this body stops functioning, those electrical pulses will stop and I’ll no longer be conscious.  What then?  What happens to me?  Is there more to all of this?  That’s what I want to know, but I guess, even that desire to know is mostly rooted in my own survival instincts.  If I were like Graham, I suppose I wouldn’t even think the thought of “surviving”, or care one way or another.  That’s probably the answer.

2 thoughts on “Real Life Zombies – Cotard’s Syndrome”

  1. In some ways it is reminiscent of the sense of self reported by some Eastern sages, such as Nisargadatta Maharaj. I’d imagine that other (sub)cultures might have a very different attittude with regard to how delusional this syndrome is vs. that of our culture.

    1. That’s an interesting point, and I was actually thinking about that when I wrote this post. Many forms of eastern thought would regard letting go of the “self” (or realizing the illusion of such) as a form of spiritual enlightenment. Our culture doesn’t always view it in the same light. Thanks for the comment.

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