The psychological impact of the zombie apocalypse is a popular theme for both fiction and numerous scientific studies. But it is most often explored from the perspective of the victims, survivors and family members of the walking dead. However, in 1880 French neurologist Jules Cotard defined the delusion of those who believed themselves to be dead as “The Delirium of Negation” also known as walking corpse syndrome.
While actual cases of Cotard’s syndrome are rare, the illness has seen a resurgence in popular media since 1992 when the condition was officially recognized in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. From the medical comedy Scrubs to the psychological thriller Hannibal, the disease has worked its way into modern fiction.
But interest in the actual illness has been intense since one San Francisco medical student published her experience with the Cotard delusion online in a personal blog post entitled “Perdition Days: On Experiencing Psychosis.”
It was true that I was dead, but I believed it made sense to play-act normalcy, or rather, an improved version of normalcy, because of the additional belief that I was in an afterlife. According to the logic of my delusion, this afterlife was given to me because I hadn’t done enough to show compassion in my “real” life; and though I was now dead, my death was also an optimistic opportunity.
The science behind Cotard’s syndrome lay in neurophysiology and psychopathology. Theories often link neural misfiring in the fusiform face area of the brain or lesions in the parietal lobe to walking dead syndrome. And while this is a serious mental illness; taken together with disorders of consciousness (such as comas, vegetative or minimally conscious states) it may help researchers in the future better understand the full psychological impact of becoming an actual zombie.
For more information on the symptoms of walking dead syndrome, please read a firsthand account from Esmé Weijun Wang or this article by Matt Soniak on ten documented historical cases. For those of you more interested in the pathophysiology, be sure to check out this in-depth report from Michael Portzky published by ResearchGate, a professional network for scientists and researchers.