Since time immemorial, we have been listening to, reading, and watching stories about humans turning into animals in folktales, fiction, thrillers, television shows, and movies. They have always been villains and have always represented evil in our minds. But are they really evil, and do they even exist? Do scientists believe in them?
Well, science says that such delusions do exist, and the disorder paving the way to this altered state is termed as ‘Lycanthropy’.
Lycanthropy is a rare psychological disorder, which involves delusions and unusual beliefs. It leads the individual to believe that they have been turned into an animal. The name ‘lycanthropy’ is derived from two Greek words, lykoi meaning ‘wolf” and anthropus meaning humans. Though the name has mythological connections, it is a topic of discussion in psychiatry. The concept of werewolves has a mythological connection that traces back to early Greek mythology with the legend Lycon.
The human mind is home to a lot of bizarre and dazzling mysteries, and one of them is lycanthropy. Symptoms of lycanthropy include a delusion that the patient is undergoing a human to animal transformation as the patient starts behaving like an animal. They start crawling, howling, and sometimes biting themselves as well as others. The said ‘animals’ are not always wolves, though canines are among the most common ones. There are also rare cases wherein the patient imagines that others have been transformed into animals. Some people think that they are in a slow metamorphosis of growing into an animal.
Lycanthropy has been a part of witchcraft and medical literature for a long time and for millennia the explanation for werewolves was metaphysical. But eventually, modern science raised the idea that brain disease could have been the underlying cause for this disorder. The first report of clinical lycanthropy was reported by Moshley, presenting a patient who believed someone else was going through some such transformation. Jaspers explained the rare condition of lycanthropy as a disorder of self-awareness, a topic which he divides into 4 categories, namely, activities, unity, identity, and boundary of self. According to him, lycanthropy belongs to the third category, a disorder of identity.
The proposed mechanism occurs via two types of factors, psychological and neurological.
In terms of psychological factors, lycanthropy is mainly considered to be an idiosyncratic expression of a psychic episode caused by other disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or clinical depression. It has been associated with an altered state of mind that accompanies psychosis and the transformation appears to happen in the mind and behaviour of the affected person.
Neurological factors are differences in the shape of parts of the brain which are responsible for the representation of body shape. A neuroimaging study of two people diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy showed that these areas represent an unusual activation in the brain’s cortex, suggesting that these patients feel changes in body shapes because of the underlying neurological change.
One of the probable underlying causes of this disorder is drug abuse. A case study refers to a young man from Iran, who felt that his father had changed to a boar and his brother to a horse and that he was being attacked by both of their transformed forms. Later, his medical history revealed that after taking many ecstasy pills in an unofficial cessation, he had developed such symptoms which consequently led to clinical lycanthropy.
Although clinical lycanthropy broadly came into light in the late 18th century, clues for it being a mental disorder can be traced back to the 7th century, when Alexandrian physician Paulus Aegineta attributed lycanthropy to melancholia. In 1563, Johann Weyer wrote that werewolves suffer from an imbalance in their melancholic humor and exhibit a physical symptom of paleness as well as sunken dim and dry eyes. Thus, the association of lycanthropy with mental conditions exists throughout folklore.
There is no well-defined cure for lycanthropy, but that doesn’t make it completely incurable. Lycanthropy can be treated with proper counselling, psychotherapy, understanding, and support.
Prevention is always better than cure. While people with a history of clinical depression, schizophrenia, or any other psychological disorders should be taken care of, the use of hallucinogens must be avoided as well.
As the psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden said, “The first step towards change is awareness, the second step is acceptance”. The masses should understand that people suffering from lycanthropy aren’t from any alien world, but are patients who are in need of our sympathy, help, and understanding. Society needs to accept that such delusions do exist and that these patients are ultimately people, just like us.