Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Everyone knows Howard Hughes was obsessive-compulsive (among other things) and I bet lots of us who grew up on Double Dare shudder to think of the OCD Marc Summers dealing with all of the goo and muck as the host of the messy game show.

Although these celebrities have shared their battles rather publicly, there are a few out there who suffer from OCD quietly. Like who? Read on to find out…
Cameron Diaz

Despite her memorable “hair gel” scene in There’s Something About Mary, Cameron Diaz can’t stand germs and other people’s “fluids”, as she puts it. She says she rubs doorknobs so hard to get them clean before opening them that the paint wears off. She washes her hands and floors “many times” every day and uses her elbows to open doors so she won’t get germs on her hands.
Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton became good friends with neighbor Warren Zevon when Warren saw Billy Bob return to the mailbox three times in the span of a couple of minutes. Warren identified Billy Bob as a fellow obsessive-compulsive and the two of them bonded over their phobias. Among Billy Bob’s is a phobia of antique furniture, which he wrote into a character in Sling Blade. He also fears some kinds of silverware, which shows up in his Monster’s Ball character.
David Beckham

Sure, he’s good looking, talented, funny, has great hair and lots of money, but David Beckham has his struggles, too. He hates odd numbers and is obsessed with symmetry - if there’s three of something, he has to hide the third somewhere out of sight. If something’s slightly askew, he can’t rest until the row has been straightened. Before he can settle into a hotel room, he says he puts all of the books and pamphlets together in a drawer. You have to wonder, though, if his odd number phobia means he and Posh will be adding to their brood – currently three boys – soon.
Leonardo DiCaprio

You know the old saying, “Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back”? Leonardo DiCaprio used to take that little rhyme very seriously. As a kid, he could not step on cracks or other designated spots. He overcame this particular disorder until he played Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He revisited his old ways to try to get into Hughes’ famously phobic character and ended up falling back into the habit – he was frequently late for filming because he had a specific way he had to walk to get to the set and would have to retrace his steps if anything went awry.
Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin says he has developed quite the fixation on cleanliness over the years. He says he can come home and immediately tell if a book is out of place and insists on doing household chores before his housekeeper does, even to the point that he will miss a plane if it means getting his dishes done.
Jennifer Love Hewitt

I can relate to this one – Jennifer Love Hewitt says she can’t go to sleep if there are any doors open in the house – including cabinet doors and closet doors. She thinks she inherited her OCD from her mother, who counts steps. I do that, too.
Charles Darwin

It’s not just contemporary celebrities who suffer from OCD – evidence shows that Darwin may have suffered from OCD, among a laundry list of other possible disorders, including panic disorder, agoraphobia and hypochondria. This may be one of the causes of his detailed accounts of things – he even recorded how loud and strong the ringing in his ears was on a daily basis.
Nikola Tesla

No doubt Nikola Tesla was a genius – he was an inventor, physicist, mechanical and electrical engineer.
He was also an extreme germophobe – he hated hair unless it was his own and found jewelry disgusting. He did things in three or numbers divisible by three; he always used 18 napkins, estimated the mass of everything he was going to eat and would not eat with a woman if it was just the two of them.

Of course, this is by no means an inclusive list - in addition to the previously mentioned Howard Hughes and Marc Summers, there’s also Delta Burke, Zach Braff, Howie Mandel, David Sedaris, Joey Ramone and more.

Monday, May 26, 2008

I Don't Find This Particularly Funny

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962 was an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness (MPI) in the vicinity of the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania near the border of Kenya. Due to its nature the incident has been confused with positive humorous or infectious laughter as seen in phenomena like the holy laughter movement. The nature of MPI, however, is quite dissimilar to these euphoric experiences.

Records of this occurrence, as so often with cases of MPI, are sparse, and have been embellished and misquoted. The epidemic seems to have started within a small group of students in a boarding school, possibly triggered by a joke. Laughter, as is commonly known, is in some sense contagious, and for whatever reason in this case the laughter perpetuated itself, far transcending its original cause. Since it is physiologically impossible to laugh for much more than a few minutes at a time, the laughter must have made itself known sporadically, though reportedly it was incapacitating when it struck. The school from which the epidemic sprang was shut down; the children and parents transmitted it to the surrounding area. Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off.

Though the epidemic may have started in humor, the oft-noted laughter became significant in an entirely different way. Other more worrisome symptoms were reported on a similarly massive scale; pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes, and attacks of crying all appeared to some extent. This laughter epidemic is often misunderstood as implying that thousands of people were continuously laughing for months. As noted above, this is impossible; the true nature of the epidemic was occasional attacks of laughter among groups of people, occurring throughout the noted region at irregular intervals.

No one knows what sparked this incident, but scientists can make reasonable guesses as to why mass hysteria may have affected this part of the world. Independence from Great Britain had been achieved recently, on December 9, 1961, and Kashasha was at the time part of the nation of Tanganyika (Tanganyika would merge with Zanzibar in 1964, creating the modern nation of Tanzania). Students felt that expectations from their teachers and parents had risen markedly, and said they felt stressed as a result. This could explain the epidemic's genesis in a boarding school; one cure for MPI is removing sufferers from their current surroundings, impossible without shutting the school down, something which the administrators were surely reluctant to do. The spread of the epidemic, laughter, crying, rashes, and all, among the adult population may signify widespread uncertainty about the future among Tanganyikans. Situated in the northwestern corner of Tanganyika, the region may have been too isolated and insular to allow for a change of location, which allowed the epidemic to spread and last for a great amount of time. The unique characteristics of the Kashasha area, namely its isolation, a significant population, stress among the entire population and especially the boarding school component, combined perhaps with pure chance, probably best explain why the epidemic occurred and how it lasted so long.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bizarre Mental Disorders

Phantom Limb Disorder

A person suffering from this disorder experiences the sensation that a missing limb (or even organ, such as the appendix) is still present on the body. 50 - 80% of people who have had an amputation experience this disorder. The sufferer will very often feel pain and discomfort in the phantom limb. Some sufferers can feel their phantom limbs gesticulating while they talk, and others believe that the limb is acting independently of their will. This disorder is often treated with Virtual Reality therapy (as pictured above).

Body Integrity Identity Disorder

Also known as Amputee Identity Disorder, this illness causes a person to wish to have a healthy part of their body amputated. In some cases, the sufferer has gone so far as to amputate their own limbs. Some sufferers also have sexual fetishes involving amputees. Some surgeons have actually amputated a limb for a person suffering this disorder, but it is a highly controversial move and most doctors use similar treatments to those used for phantom limb disorders.


Mythomania is a condition involving compulsive lying by a person with no obvious motivation. The affected person might believe their lies to be truth, and may have to create elaborate myths to reconcile them with other facts. A “pathological liar” is someone who often embellishes his or her stories in a way that he or she believes will impress people. It may be that a pathological liar is different from a normal liar in that a pathological liar believes the lie he or she is telling to be true at least in public and is “playing” the role.


Somatoparaphrenia is a type of monothematic delusion where one suddenly denies ownership of a limb or an entire side of ones body. For example, a patient might believe that his own arm would belong to the doctor, or that another patient left it behind. It can sometimes be treated by vestibular caloric stimulation (squirting warm water into the patient’s ear in a specific way), although most sufferers will not be aware of this and may request amputation, which is almost always denied as amputating a healthy limb would be a basic violation of the Hippocratic Oath. In the image above we see a series of drawings made by a sufferer of this disorder.

Munchausen Syndrome

Munchausen syndrome is a psychiatric disorder in which those affected fake disease, illness, or psychological trauma in order to draw attention or sympathy to themselves. It is in a class of disorders known as factitious disorders which involve “illnesses” whose symptoms are either self-induced or falsified by the patient. It is also sometimes known as hospital addiction syndrome. A related illness is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy in which the person feigns the illness in another person - usually going so far to cause them harm to perpetuate the myth in order to gain sympathy for themselves.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

This may sound familiar to drug users: AIWS or Micropsia is a condition in which a patient’s sense of time, space and body image are distorted. People may appear tiny or patients may feel that part of their body shape or size has been altered. A sufferer may perceive humans, parts of humans, animals, and inanimate objects as substantially smaller than in reality. Another name for the condition is Lilliput sight or Lilliputian hallucinations. The image above illustrates the illusion suffered by patients of this disorder.

Neglect Syndrome

In Neglect Syndrome, a person loses the ability to give equal attention to both sides of a space. For example, a patient in a rehabilitation hospital may wake up in the morning and proceeds to shave his face - only to be told later that he has only shaved half of his face. A person with this disorder, when drawing a person, will often leave off the arm and leg from one side, and when questioned, will state that it looks perfectly fine to them. When drawing a clock, the sufferer will often draw a circle and stuff all of the numbers in to one side (as in the image above). Neglect Syndrome is most often caused by damage to one hemisphere of the brain, as in the case of a stroke.


Kleptomania is the disease in which a person has great difficulty resisting the impulse to steal something. Despite this being a disorder, the US and UK courts do not consider it a defense against stealing. Kleptomania usually begins in puberty and continues until late adulthood. It is considered to be a part of the obsessive compulsive range of disorders. Kleptomaniacs usually steal items of little value, and some will tend to steal the same types of items repeatedly.

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Foreign Accent Syndrome is a very rare disorder which usually occurs after some kind of brain injury (such as a stroke or head injury). When a person suffers from this syndrome they speak their native language with a foreign accent. There have been 50 recorded cases of this syndrome between 1941 and 2006. According to Wikipedia, a well-known case of foreign accent syndrome occurred in Norway in 1941 after a young woman, Astrid L., suffered a head injury from shrapnel during an air-raid. After apparently recovering from the injury she was left with what sounded like a strong German accent and was shunned by her fellow Norwegians. You can read about one case on the BBC.

Genital Retraction Syndrome

Genital Retraction Syndrome is a strange disorder in which the sufferer believes that his genitals (or breasts in the case of women sufferers) are shrinking, retracting in to the body, or may be removed entirely. Even more strangely, there have been cases of this occurring amongst many people at the same time; this is called penis panic. The phenomenon is often associated with occult beliefs or witchcraft. Outbreaks of penis panic occurred in China in 1948, 1955, 1966, 1974 and 1984/85. It is worth reading the Wikipedia article on this very bizarre syndrome.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Paging Dr. Freud: 8 Unusual Mental Illnesses

There are only a certain number of ways to go crazy, and you can find most of them listed in the psychologist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its fourth edition and commonly referred to as DSM-IV. But along with psych-ward greatest hits like schizophrenia and depression, the DSM lists some less-than-common conditions.
1. Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania is a compulsion to pluck one’s hair and often starts around age 12. A triichotillomaniac in Michigan says that she first started plucking her eyelashes in first grade. By fifth grade she had started pulling hair in earnest. She still does it today, although she over the years she has learned to manage the illness. “I now am a sales manager managing ten account executives and 30 of the largest accounts in the state of Michigan,” she writes. “I have not made less then six figures since I was 24. Oh [yeah]. I also suffer from trich[otillomania] and have bald spots and no eyelashes!”

In rare cases, trichotillomaniacs accumulate hairballs in the intestinal tract by chewing and swallowing the hair they pluck. You can see an extreme example at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.—a huge hairball molded to the shape of a girl’s stomach. It took six years to form.

2. Othello Syndrome

Othello syndrome is also known as delusional or morbid jealousy—a conviction that your husband/wife/partner is cheating on you. It often leads sufferers to threaten to attack their spouses or to stalk the imagined lovers of their spouses. In one case, a woman accused her husband of fathering 10,000 children with a 70-year-old mistress.
3. Pyromania

Def Leppard’s breakthrough album is named after this rare fixation with fire. Pyromaniacs don’t set fires to destroy property, collect insurance, or draw attention; they are attracted to fire itself and may feel tense, aggressive, or piqued before lighting up. They may even hang out at fire departments or become firefighters so they can focus on fire all the time. Pyros tend to be men and tend to drink. Some experts argue that pyromania is a myth, a sexy label attached to mentally ill people who happen to set a fire. One infamous arsonist who had many characteristics of a pyromaniac was Paul Keller of Seattle, now serving a 99-year prison sentence. Keller started setting fires as a child and later tried join the fire department. An alcoholic, he set over 70 fires in his career, including one at a nursing home.
4. Folie a deux

Folie a deux is a delusion or psychosis shared by several people. One individual has a genuine mental illness, often schizophrenia, and their otherwise healthy friends or family members take on some of their neuroses. Psychologists have described families that believe they are infested with invisible parasites, includes Matrix-style robotic bugs. In one case, a French woman and her husband tried to kill her doctor, presumably for giving her the parasites. In a similar case, a woman began to see insects crawling her husband. Then the husband began to see them, too—but when doctors told the two to collect the bugs, they brought in a jar containing hair, thread, and bread crumbs. Once the husband was separated from his wife, he stopped seeing the bugs.
5. Caffeine Intoxication

The DSM contains a diagnosis for caffeine intoxication, which occurs when you ingest more than 250 milligrams of the stuff, about the amount in two cups of coffee. Not surprisingly, caffeine intoxication can contribute to panic and anxiety disorders.
6. Internet Addiction

Researchers in Israel have proposed a new diagnosis: internet addition. “The Internet provides inexpensive, interesting and comfortable recreation, but sometimes users get hooked. Thus, the computer-internet addiction concept has been proposed as an explanation for uncontrollable and damaging use.” Sound familiar?

The DSM also lists several mental syndromes unique to certain cultures and circumstances.
7. Brain fag

Brain fag is a common complaint among West African students. It’s sort of like “Teacher, my brain hurts,” accompanied by blurred vision and actual pain in the head or neck.
8. Koro

Koro, says the DSM, is a “sudden and intense anxiety that the penis (or, in females, the vulva and nipples) will recede into the body and possibly cause death.” Koro doesn’t just strike one unlucky person; it hits southeast Asia in waves of a mass hysteria in which everybody becomes terrified of death via genital retraction.