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

Credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Chruchill Downs

An ornate hat seen during Kentucky Derby 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky.

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

Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

A woman walks past a mural of a dragon inside the Game of Thrones pop-up bar in Washington, DC on July 12, 2017.

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

Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages

An actor portrays serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer at Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House, at Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on October 5, 2012.

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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.