5 of the strangest psychology cases in history
Famously unusual case studies that perplexed psychologists.
- Psychologists are faced with many patient mysteries.
- The cases reveal the complexity of humans.
- Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a number of very strange cases.
As billions of people fade in and out of history on this dusty rock, there are bound to be many strange ones. With the advent of psychology, the study of those who don't fit the norm have provided many invaluable clues about who we are as a species, what we want as individuals, how our brains work, as well as shining a light on our deepest, darkest needs.
Here are 5 of the most unusual psychology cases that remind us of the underlying mysteries that make us human.
1. The Wild Boy of Aveyron
In 1800, a boy came out of the Aveyron forest in France. He was aged 11 or 12 and seemingly lived in the woods on his own for a number of years. The "feral child" didn't know any language and was named "Victor" by the physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who took it upon himself to study the boy.
Victor became a celebrity of sorts and a great case study of nature vs. nurture. While he never learned to speak fluently, he started to wear clothes, acquired appropriate toilet habits and could write a few letters. Itard was not the only scientist who studied the boy but five years of work led the physician to groundbreaking research into educating the developmentally disabled.
Autism expert Uta Frith believes Victor was possibly autistic but we cannot know for sure.
2. The man who mistook his wife for a hat
An ornate hat seen during Kentucky Derby 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Chruchill Downs
The British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks came across more than a few strange cases in his studies. One his most famous books "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" describes the case of one Dr. P., who suffered from visual agnosia – a condition results from damage to the brain's occipital or parietal lobes.
When he looked at the world around him, Dr. P. didn't see it quite correctly, unable to recognize objects or people. For example, when he looked at his wife – he saw a hat. He also saw faces where there weren't any faces at all.
"In the street he might pat the heads of water hydrants and parking meters, taking these to be the heads of children; he would amiably address carved knobs on the furniture and be astounded when they did not reply," Sacks wrote.
3. The woman who saw dragons everywhere
A woman walks past a mural of a dragon inside the Game of Thrones pop-up bar in Washington, DC on July 12, 2017.
Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
A research paper was published in The Lancet in 2014 with the juicy title "Prosopometamorphopsia and facial hallucinations." It presented the unusual case of a 52-year-old Dutch woman who came to the psychiatric clinic of the authors. As if she was living in a real-life "Game of Thrones," all her life she saw people's faces change to faces of dragons. She also hallucinated such faces many times a day.
The researchers, who included Oliver Sacks, reported the woman describing that the dragon faces were "black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red."
The dragons didn't only appear to her in the faces but almost everywhere - in walls, electrical sockets, computer screens or just coming out of the dark at night.
The scientists didn't fully figure out what was causing these hallucinations, even after extensive testing that included neurological examinations, EEGs and MRI brain scans.
4. The man who wanted to be eaten
An actor portrays serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer at Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House, at Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on October 5, 2012.
Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
Yes, this is a not a case for the faint-hearted. Toronto psychiatric hospital doctors came across a man named Stephen, who wanted to be eaten. But the reverse-cannibalism fetish wasn't enough – Stephen strongly preferred the eating to be done by a "large, dominant woman" who would then defecate him out.
The 45-year-old man was described as a clean, normal guy, who didn't look psychotic. The researchers ascribed his bizarre wishes to the desire to be unborn, as if returning to the womb. Central to this was the idea of being swallowed whole and then expelled. "He often fantasized about being feces or semen and being expelled by a person," the report pointed out.
Notably, this problem wasn't the reason Stephen came to the doctors – it turned out he was worried he was gay. The doctors did not think so.
And since we're on the topic, the takeaway word here is vorarephilia - an erotic desire to eat others or the "love of devouring" in Latin.
5. The woman who couldn't stop the music for four years
Pop musicians generally try to create hook-filled tunes that you can't get out of your head. But nobody wants it to go this far – a lady named Susan Root from Essex, England got a particular song stuck in her head for four years. The song was a 1952 tune performed by Patti Page called "How Much is that Doggie in the Window."
Therapists couldn't do much to cure Susan's musical hallucinations also called "musical tinnitus", as wrote Medical Daily. It got so bad that her husband of 40 years started to shout just to get her attention when she sat entranced by the song playing in her head.
The rare condition was the worst at night, when it's quiet. Susan had to put on the TV just so she could tune out the incessant tune and go to sleep.
Later in life, Susan started to mostly hallucinate hearing Judy Garland's "Somewhere over the Rainbow".
And if you'd like to see if "How Much is that Doggie in the Window" would get stuck in your head, give it a try here:
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Credit: Gunawan/Nature magazine
The images and our best computer models don't agree.
A trio of intriguing galaxy clusters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNDA0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTkzNzUyOH0.0IRzkzvKsmPEHV-v1dqM1JIPhgE2W-UHx0COuB0qQnA/img.jpg?width=980" id="d69be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d2664d9174369e0a06540cb3a3a9079" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The three galaxy clusters imaged for the study
Mapping dark matter<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d904b585c806752f261e1215014691a6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fO0jO_a9uLA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The assumption has been that the greater the lensing effect, the higher the concentration of dark matter.</p><p>As scientists analyzed the clusters' large-scale lensing — the massive arc and elongation visual effects produced by dark matter — they noticed areas of smaller-scale lensing within that larger distortion. The scientists interpret these as concentrations of dark matter within individual galaxies inside the clusters.</p><p>The researchers used spectrographic data from the VLT to determine the mass of these smaller lenses. <a href="https://www.oas.inaf.it/en/user/pietro.bergamini/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Pietro Bergamini</a> of the INAF-Observatory of Astrophysics and Space Science in Bologna, Italy explains, "The speed of the stars gave us an estimate of each individual galaxy's mass, including the amount of dark matter." The leader of the spectrographic aspect of the study was <a href="http://docente.unife.it/docenti-en/piero.rosati1/curriculum?set_language=en" target="_blank">Piero Rosati</a> of the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Italy who recalls, "the data from Hubble and the VLT provided excellent synergy. We were able to associate the galaxies with each cluster and estimate their distances." </p><p>This work allowed the team to develop a thoroughly calibrated, high-resolution map of dark matter concentrations throughout the three clusters.</p>
But the models say...<p>However, when the researchers compared their map to the concentrations of dark matter computer models predicted for galaxies bearing the same general characteristics, something was <em>way</em> off. Some small-scale areas of the map had 10 times the amount of lensing — and presumably 10 times the amount of dark matter — than the model predicted.</p><p>"The results of these analyses further demonstrate how observations and numerical simulations go hand in hand," notes one team member, <a href="https://nena12276.wixsite.com/elenarasia" target="_blank">Elena Rasia</a> of the INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Italy. Another, <a href="http://adlibitum.oats.inaf.it/borgani/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Stefano Borgani</a> of the Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy, adds that "with advanced cosmological simulations, we can match the quality of observations analyzed in our paper, permitting detailed comparisons like never before."</p><p>"We have done a lot of testing of the data in this study," Meneghetti says, "and we are sure that this mismatch indicates that some physical ingredient is missing either from the simulations or from our understanding of the nature of dark matter." <a href="https://physics.yale.edu/people/priyamvada-natarajan" target="_blank">Priyamvada Natarajan</a> of Yale University in Connecticut agrees: "There's a feature of the real Universe that we are simply not capturing in our current theoretical models."</p><p>Given that any theory in science lasts only until a better one comes along, Natarajan views the discrepancy as an opportunity, saying, "this could signal a gap in our current understanding of the nature of dark matter and its properties, as these exquisite data have permitted us to probe the detailed distribution of dark matter on the smallest scales."</p><p>At this point, it's unclear exactly what the conflict signifies. Do these smaller areas have unexpectedly high concentrations of dark matter? Or can dark matter, under certain currently unknown conditions, produce a tenfold increase in lensing beyond what we've been expecting, breaking the assumption that more lensing means more dark matter?</p><p>Obviously, the scientific community has barely begun to understand this mystery.</p>
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