The man who believed he was dead


Today’s article comes from New Scientist. In it, a man named Graham attempted suicide but his bid failed. Afterwards, he told everyone around him that he regarded himself as dead. He no longer gained any joy from life, from normally pleasurable activities, and saw no point in continuing to exist. The mental problem that Graham was suffering from is known as Cotard’s Syndrome.

What is fascinating about this particular patient was that the researchers took the step of analysing Graham’s brain using the latest scanning techniques. They found that portions of his brain that should have been active, since he was clearly alive, showed virtually no activity at all. He had the brain activity of someone who was unconscious or in a coma, and yet he was walking around conscious and living like anyone else. Only his depression and his view of the world was different.

It would seem from this article is that a brain scan cannot reliably tell you if a person is alive or dead. As shown in the above example, if doctors report that there’s negligible activity in key parts of a patient’s brain, this only tells you that the patient concerned is either a) in a coma, b) in a vegetative state or c) is feeling very down and has a morbid desire to visit graveyards.

Graham’s extreme version of Cotard’s Syndrome also challenges our view of the brain. Graham was clearly alive and functioning mentally but his brain was officially dead. How can this be possible if the mind is a product of the brain? It would seem more like the situation Graham himself described; that his mind was alive but his brain wasn’t, making his interaction with the world, valueless, pointless and depressing.

The next article will be about a person who was somehow dead and alive, but in a very different way.