Five Fascinating Rare Psychological Disorders You Need to Know About

As I mentioned in my earnest, self-disclosing first post, I'm a university student working on a degree in psychology. Since I'm aiming for a career in Forensic Clinical psychology, most of my classes are devoted to the study of psychological disorders; I spend my time learning how to recognize the classic signs of schizophrenia and coax hyperactive patients off the ceiling. Learning to classify and diagnose patients is an important first step in learning how to treat them someday.

Before starting my degree, I assumed that this was the only therapy technique I'd need.

Of course, even if you have no formal background in psychology, you can probably name most of the major disorders off the top of your head. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Major Depressive Disorder. Social Anxiety Disorder. Tourette's Syndrome. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. ADHD. The list goes on, and on, and on, and with recent pushes for mental health awareness, you've probably been exposed to these disorders more than you ever have before. 

The portion of my audience that is made up of struggling writers and avid readers is probably especially aware of mental disorders. They pop up everywhere in literature, from the oh-my-God-my-son-shot-everyone novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, to the adorably clinically depressed donkey, Eeyore, in Winnie the Pooh. Finding something original to say about mental illness is tough, and approaching such a heavy topic without drinking yourself into a sadness coma isn't easy. Luckily for you, hypothetical struggling writer, there are still plenty of fascinating, non-heinously-debilitating disorders out there that are still waiting to be mentioned in literature. 

Regrettably, 'drunken sadness comas' have not yet been recognized as disorders.

So whether you're here for psychology facts, writing inspiration, or just plain old curiosity, enjoy reading about:

1. The Capgras Delusion

This has 'delusion' right in the name, so you already have some idea of what's involved here. By definition, delusions are beliefs about the world that have absolutely no basis in reality, and the belief involved in the Capgras Delusion - also known as Capgras Syndrome - is a real doozy. It's simple really; people with this disorder are just completely convinced that someone close to them has been replaced with a physically identical imposter.

Pictured: Your life with Capgras Delusion. Enjoy.

Obviously, living through the plot of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers every day of your life is less than ideal, and people afflicted with the disorder have very different methods of coping with it. Some people just accept the imposter and continue to go about their lives, having apparently come to the realization that their loved one's good looks are their only important quality. Others employ equally reasonable measures like pulling guns on their loved one and having standoffs with the police. Regardless of how you cope with it, treatment is tricky - simply pointing out to the sufferer that they sound like a fruity History Channel program doesn't work. Instead, you've got to point out how reality works, and wait for the patient to discover their loose screw all on their own.


A disorder like Capgras Syndrome is far too much fun to restrict to just one possible cause - it can result from brain injury, stroke, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, diabetes, migraines, hypothyroidism, drug reactions, normal human aging and hitting your head really, really hard until aliens inhabit Grandma's body. There are three female cases of Capgras Syndrome to every two male cases, which means if you wake up in the middle of the night to find one of your parents trying to peel your face off to see who you really are under there, chances are, it'll be your mother.

It's worth noting that Capgras Delusion has already made a very successful literary debut - the 2006 novel The Echo Maker by Richard Power is about a man whose car accident causes him to believe his beloved sister has been replaced by an imposter. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, elevating kooky brain disorders to literary gold. 

2. Jerusalem Syndrome

The city of Jerusalem has dominated world headlines for the last, oh, five thousand years or so, and in that time it's become a very important place for every religion that traces itself back to Abraham.

Jerusalem is significant to everyone except Greenland, China and North Korea. Make of that what you will.

Needless to say, if you're a big fan of this "God" person and his bestselling adventure novels, visiting Jerusalem is a pretty big deal. Different tourists show appreciation for the holiness of the city in different ways. Some people join scheduled, guided tours, to make sure they don't miss any attractions. Some people photograph everything they see. Some people might even choose to wander the city by themselves, taking in the culture and history of the five-millennia-old city.

Oh, and some people like to tear off their clothes and preach to random passersby on street corners.

Jerusalem Syndrome refers to a phenomenon wherein tourists with no diagnosed mental health issues descend into shoelace-eating lunacy after arriving in the city of Jerusalem. Symptoms range from funny to hilarious: sufferers commonly wander away from whatever group they arrived in, fashion themselves togas out of stolen hotel linens, declare themselves to be Jesus 2.0, and preach garbled, lukewarm sermons about the merits of 2nd-century lifestyles at the increasingly jaded public. Other fun symptoms include compulsive bathing and nail-clipping, uncontrollable reciting of hymns and psalms, and spontaneous pilgrimages to Jerusalem's holiest sites. 

Just think - debilitating lunacy is only a plane ride away.

While the syndrome is known for appearing in people who are otherwise healthy and stable, closer examination has revealed that many of the 100 people who are diagnosed ever year have 'unusual thoughts' prior to the onset of the disorder. 'Unusual thoughts' is such a delightfully vague term that it could encompass everything from an insistence on always eating pizza on Wednesdays, to a deep-seated belief that moon-dwelling space leopards planned the 9/11 attacks. Just to be on the safe side, you should assume that if you have any personal quirks or irrational beliefs whatsoever, a trip to Jerusalem would see you standing on a sidewalk, hollering at strangers to forsake the modern evils of cell phones and elastic waistband underwear.

Repent, sinners!

The good news about Jerusalem Syndrome is that it's relatively easy to treat. The city has a designated hospital - the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital - that authorities drag all sufferers to, and the staff there find that only 40% of patients need to be tranquilized and pumped full of anti-psychotics. Usually, the most effective treatment is also the simplest - just leave the city. When sufferers return to their country of origin, they return to normal, with no lingering signs of psychosis. The entire process of onset and recovery takes as little as five days, making this psychotic syndrome actually preferable to the common cold. 

Though Jerusalem syndrome has not yet had its moment in the literary spotlight, it was the focus of an episode of The Simpsons, and that's just as good. 

3. Boanthropy

Those of you who paid enough attention in school to recognize the meanings of the Latin derivative "bo" and the Greek root "anthropy" probably don't need to be told what this is all about. For the rest of you, I'll spell it out: boanthropy is a condition in which a human being firmly believes him- or herself to be a cow.

Timmy was determined not to let his condition prevent him from leading a normal life.

Though this sounds like a made-up disorder invented by the pharmaceutical industry to give them an excuse to shovel pills down the throats of any four-year-old who declares he wants to be a farm animal when he grows up, boanthropy has been around for quite some time. It's been happening for so long, in fact, that the most famous case of the disorder appears in the Bible - in the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar II abandons all of his responsibilities to live as a cow for seven years. After nearly a decade of grazing in random pastures, the king snaps out of it and resumes his reign, since no one apparently objects to being ruled by a man who spent a significant portion of his life as livestock. At the time, people attributed his insanity to the whims of a petulant, Old Testament God. Today, psychologists are slightly more inclined to treat it with pills than with the sacrifice of a firstborn son.

Boanthropy typically comes on suddenly, with no major head injuries or hallucinatory drug mishaps to mark its onset. The only thing sufferers seem to have in common is that they're extremely suggestible - in some cases, hypnosis may be all it takes to set the disorder in motion. Some people are also capable of developing full-fledged boanthropy by just telling themselves over and over again that they are a large, grazing bovine. It's also one of the only disorders that has been linked to dreams; many cases have been found to begin after sufferers have a dream of being turned into a cow, proving that not quite everything Freud said was sex-crazed, cocaine-fueled nonsense.

"Hooray." - Sigmund Freud

Because of its rarity and bizarre qualities, boanthropy is one of those disorders still waiting to make its literary debut. Well, unless you count the Bible. 

4. Cotard Syndrome

This disorder is also commonly known as the Cotard Delusion, which should instantly alert readers that this is going to be a good one. Like individuals with Capgras Delusion, people with the Cotard delusion have irrational beliefs and a diagnosis that starts with the letter "C". However, these people don't believe that their loved ones have been replaced with impostors. That would be crazy. No, people with Cotard Syndrome simply believe that they themselves are dead.

If you start dressing like this every day, other people will wish they were dead too.

The syndrome was first discovered in Paris in the late 19th century, by neurologist James Cotard, for whom, you may have noticed, the disorder was named. Cotard first encountered the syndrome in a patient named Mademoiselle X, who believed that she had been damned to hell, and become incapable of dying a natural death; this belief was severely tested when she died of self-inflicted starvation. Since then, cases of Cotard delusion have followed roughly the same path. Patients initially suffer with bouts of depression, which somehow progress into a thinly-rationalized belief that they are somehow no longer alive. If a patient happens to live alone, or with a family who doesn't consider any of the preceding symptoms to be sufficient reason to see a doctor, the patient's delusions progress until he or she completely stops meeting all physical needs and winds up as dead as they think they are.

You may recognize the disorder from AMC's hit documentary series.

Luckily, Cotard delusion can't sneak up on just anyone out of the blue. It only appears in people who suffer from schizophrenia, incredibly severe epilepsy, or other variations of crossed wires and psychosis. And for such a complex and potentially-fatal disorder, treatment is incredibly simple; the only thing needed to resurrect patients is an anti-psychotic prescription, sparing therapists from having to have long, frustrating, one-sided talks with patients who firmly believe themselves to be disembodied corpses. 

To my knowledge, you can't yet pick up a novel and read about Cotard Syndrome. But you can always just purchase a copy of Richard Matheson's I am Legend and pretend.

5. Foreign Accent Syndrome

Some medical conditions have confusing or misleading names, but this one is exactly what it says on the tin: Foreign Accent Syndrome causes sufferers to develop, well, a foreign accent. Keep in mind, "foreign accent" could be any foreign accent; there's no telling if you'll get a posh English accent, a throaty German accent, or an accent found only amongst the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand. Some accents associated with this disorder are so convincing that people with genuine accents commonly mistake sufferers for being one of their own - one English-speaking patient who wound up with a Russian accent made the exact same grammatical errors common to Russian ESL speakers, leading the patient to be babbled at in rapid-fire Russian whenever he encountered a native speaker.

Changing your name to Boris is optional, but recommended.

Of course, not everyone afflicted with this disorder is lucky enough to get a recognizable accent; many patients end up pronouncing their words in a way that "just kinda sounds foreign" to native speakers of their language. Hilariously enough, people with Foreign Accent Syndrome can end up passing their altered pronunciation on to their young children or siblings, forcing an entire family to explain their unique medical history to every single person who asks them where they're from. 

Now, Foreign Accent Syndrome doesn't just show up unannounced one day; it's usually the result of some kind of head injury, which means that the only thing standing between you and a potentially sexy accent is a heinous motorcycle accident. If getting a motorcycle licence sounds like too much of a hassle, you can also develop the disorder as the result of a stroke, developmental abnormality, or as a consequence of severe, pervasive migraines. Even if you've gone to the effort of brain-damaging yourself to a new accent, your efforts might all be for naught; the brain is an incredibly resilient thing, and - especially amount younger patients - the accent may disappear on its own after just a few weeks or months.

Sticking a bandage on it is known to really speed recovery.

Unfortunately for my aspiring writer audience, Foreign Accent Syndrome just doesn't seem like the sort of that that would be interesting to write about. There's no way that it could ever lead to an interesting story. Oh, unless you count the story of that Norwegian woman in WWII whose life went to pieces after a shrapnel wound gave her a German accent. She's kind of interesting.


Which other fascinating disorders did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

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