Saturday, August 10, 2013

Humans, Weirder Than Fiction

From the Sydney Morning Herald


Also called micropsia, this condition distorts visual perception so that objects that are close appear disproportionately tiny, as though viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. It owes its name to Lewis Carroll's fictional protagonist, Alice, who perceived things as too small or too big after taking magical medicines. Usually temporary in nature, the syndrome is associated with migraines. Carroll suffered migraines, so perhaps he was describing his own experiences.


A wonderful name for a nasty problem, this is a sleep disorder resulting from a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system. Its victims are unable to breathe spontaneously but must consciously will each breath, so will suffocate if they fall asleep. Respirators may help. Also known as congenital central alveolar hypoventilation syndrome, Ondine's Curse derives its name from the legend of a water nymph, Ondine, who fell in love with a human, thereby forfeiting her immortality. Though he had pledged his undying love, Ondine discovered him snoring in the arms of another woman. She cursed him, declaring that as he had pledged his love with every waking breath, he would die the moment he fell asleep.


Still on the subject of hands, polydactylism is a congenital abnormality involving being born with too many digits, ranging from rudimentary nubbins to fully formed fingers or toes. While rare, polydactylism is prevalent among communities given to intermarriage, such as Philadelphia's Old Order Amish. Notables with the condition have included Henry VIII's ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn (whose extra pinky sparked rumours of her being a witch), war photographer Robert Capa and cricketer Garry Sobers. According to The Guinness Book of Records, the record for extra digits goes to Indian brothers Tribhuwan and Triloki Yadav, who boast 20 fingers, four thumbs and 24 toes between them.


A loved one has been stolen by a doppelganger; sounds like a movie about alien abduction. But for sufferers of Capgras Syndrome, the action occurs only in their brains, not outer space. This syndrome involves the delusion that a significant other, such as a parent, spouse or other relative, is being impersonated by an imposter. Sufferers sometimes attack the supposed double. The delusion can also extend even to oneself, with the person convinced that the reflection in the mirror is that of an imposter. While extremely rare, it is linked with brain damage, psychotic disorders and various neurological problems that somehow interfere with normal face recognition abilities. The syndrome owes its name to the French psychiatrist who first described it.


People with hypertrichosis, a congenital condition involving hair growing all over the body - including eyelids and even ears, which can sprout long curls - have always attracted enormous interest, especially as sideshow stars. Probably the most famous was JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy (aka Fedor Jeftichew, a Russian recruited by showman P.T. Barnum), who toured widely during the latter half of the 19th century. There are different forms of hypertrichosis, distinguished by varying hair type, quantity and distribution. Some cases also have a little hairy appendage called a faun tail.


Koro is one of a number of names for a hysterical condition known medically as Genital Retraction Syndrome, whose victims become convinced that their genitals are disappearing into their bodies. It can be contagious, sparking off "penis panics", such as the one that overtook Singapore in 1967 in which thousands of men became convinced that their penises were being stolen; it was contained by a complete media blackout on the condition. Often blamed on witchcraft, Koro typically strikes in less developed parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, where belief in sorcery remains strong. It's thought to be an extreme overreaction to normal genital shrinking from cold or other causes. Koro can be treated with medical reassurance and anti-anxiety medications.


Named after Proteus, the Greek god famous for changing his shape, this is a progressive disorder causing disfiguring tumours and abnormal bone development. It's extremely rare, with just over 100 cases confirmed since it was first identified in 1979. Its most celebrated victim was Joseph Merrick, aka "The Elephant Man", a grotesquely deformed man befriended by Dr Frederick Treves, a physician at London Hospital. At first, Merrick was believed to have suffered from the nerve disorder neurofibromatosis, but in 2003 DNA testing on his remains showed that he in fact had Proteus Syndrome. His story inspired the 1980 film The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as Merrick.

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