Mysterious maladies

Reports of spontaneous human combustion in Tamil Nadu sparks the author’s interest in outrageous medical phenomena.

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:36 pm IST

Published - August 17, 2013 07:46 pm IST

According to his parents, a three-month-old in Chennai burst into flames four times since he was born, burning down two huts. Doctors gathered round and, after much rumination, declared this to be a possible case of ‘spontaneous human combustion’. The little one was treated for burns and swathed in insulatory precautions.

He hasn’t been ablaze since, but the infant fired up speculation engines that belched theories ranging from suspected abuse to the occult. What other mysteries are out there, that insurance wouldn’t cover, but incredulity would?

It wasn’t me

In that awkward moment in a party after the second you make a manic grab at the last of the hors d'oeuvre, when other guests gasp, the hosts twitch, and the DJ shakes his head instead of nodding, this is what you say - “I’ve got Alien Hand Syndrome.” Also known as ‘anarchic hand’ or ‘Dr. Strangelove Syndrome’, it means your hand won’t listen to you anymore. Those with this condition are advised to stay away from buffets - ‘please, I beg you, not the greens’, crowded buses - ‘Ouch! I swear I didn’t mean to’ and art galleries - ‘Who painted that moustache?’ However, the condition is credible only if you’ve had severe epilepsy, Alzheimers or a stroke.

The wolfman cometh

In luxuriance and hair density, they’d beat shirtless actors of the 90’s, hands down. They’ve been featured in every single reality show with ‘unbelievable’, ‘strange’ or ‘incredible’ in the title and an overdose of ominous music. Men and women covered in profuse hair on every available surface of skin, save soles and palms. Sceptical? You’d better believe it, because people with ‘Hypertrichosis’ have been discovered, across a varied geographic distribution. They were isolated; treated as freaks and persecuted until a few decades ago. Then the average level of bigotry and intolerance caught up.

Into the rabbit hole

Ever have a migraine so severe that you thought your head was bigger than a cupboard, out of which hopped the Mad Hatter, who dared you to try his absinthe and mushrooms? No? Then your headache wasn’t all that terrible. That, and you don’t have ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’. Sufferers lose sense of size, distance and time. The hallucinations are a bonus. The condition may last a few moments, or take hours to abate. While it does seem groovy psychedelic on paper, those with the condition swear they’d rather not go down that hole. So if you’ve got a migraine, stay calm and eat calcium channel blockers.

Sensei, where are the models?

This is totally real. And happens only in Paris. And nearly always to Japanese. Called ‘Paris Syndrome’, this recorded psychological condition is charecterised by palpitations, hallucinations, feelings of persecution and, this is the clue - a sense of crushing disillusionment. Apparently, Japanese tourists find the real Paris a lot less glamorous and romantic than the one fed to them by advertisements on TV and in magazines back home. Also, the language barrier and cost of tempura sends tempers flaring and puts their Zen out of gear.

Dead man walking

Zombieland is real. There are the walking dead among us. At least that’s what those with ‘Cotard’s Syndrome’ believe. Colourfully also called ‘Walking Corpse Syndrome’, sufferers think they are dead, dying, that their organs are putrefying, or in rare cases, that they are immortal. No, they don’t bite. While those that think themselves corpses mostly loll about depressed, the ones with delusions of invincibility are susceptible to trying dangerous things, like sniffing Wasabi or offering to babysit more than one toddler at a time.

Remember. Everything.

A solid memory can be invaluable and put to rest niggling questions like “Which one is my toothbrush?” Enter ‘Hyperthymesia’, also known as ‘Highly superior autobiographical memory’. Those with this condition have been known to remember what the weather was like, every day over the last decade. One savant, and this claim is still under furious scrutiny, even remembered the colour his wife wore when they first met! It still has its drawbacks, though. For one, you can no longer use the most reliable human excuse on the planet - “I totally forgot.”

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.