People With Cotard's Delusion Are Convinced They're Already Dead

People with Cotard's syndrome believe they're dead and often long to be near corpses. Darrin Klimek/DigitalVision/Thinkstock

There are some famous examples of delusional behavior in history. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin might've had paranoid delusions, and Adolf Hitler exhibited serious delusions of grandeur. But Cotard's delusion, named after French physician Jules Cotard, is not a condition that appears often in history. After all, most people are fairly easily assured they're living, breathing human beings and not rotting corpses.

On an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class, hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey introduce us to Cotard and the delusion named after him. People who have Cotard's delusion (aka Cotard's syndrome) believe that they're dead or never existed. In some cases, they think that they don't have any internal organs, or their entire body is rotting inside.

Either way you cut it, Jules Cotard's name is associated with a seriously disturbing psychological belief, as evidenced by its horror-worthy nickname "walking corpse syndrome."

But Cotard himself didn't have the syndrome. He was actually a well-heeled neurologist and psychiatrist who, in 1880, presented to his colleagues a paper on a patient named Madame X. Madame X was a 43-year-old woman who believed she was made of skin and bone only — no intestines, blood, brain or nerves. As if that weren't already tricky enough, Madame X also believed that she wasn't really alive, thus couldn't die and was damned no matter what. She died of starvation after refusing food.

The delusion isn't just a syndrome of days long past, either: In 1994, a man attempted suicide and woke up in a hospital fully convinced that he had either killed his brain or his brain was simply gone. Medical professionals were able to treat his symptoms with medications and therapy.

But that doesn't mean scientists completely understand Cotard's syndrome — Jules Cotard didn't live long enough to study the syndrome to any satisfying conclusion. As Holly and Tracy describe, the confusion around the symptoms and delusions of the condition still present medical professionals and researchers with more questions than answers. Click the podcast player in this article to find out more about Jules Cotard and the debate around Cotard's syndrome.