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Once seen as supernatural, these rare and disturbing mental delusions are now understood by science. But before such knowledge and diagnosis was available sufferers often attributed magical causes to explain their bizarre experiences. These three examples show how real medical disorders were presented in the form of fairy tales to provide an explanation for unusual phenomena.
#1 Todd’s Syndrome (Alice in Wonderland and the Lilliputians)
Todd’s syndrome is also known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome or Lilliputian Hallucinations (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). The vivid experiences of Alice and Gulliver involve bizarre distortions of space, time and size and accurately show the unusual perceptions that sufferers of Todd’s Syndrome experience. This can involve any or indeed all of the following:
- Micropsia/Macropsia (objects seem smaller/larger than they are)
- Pelopsia/Telopsia (objects seem further/closer than they are).
Just as Alice shrinks and grows, many older fairy stories and myths are full of people shrinking or growing, again usually due to the use of magic items. Todd’s Syndrome is associated with migraines and the author of Alice in Wonderland is known to have consulted an optician about his visual disturbances during migraines, so it is possible that these elements of the story came from his personal experience.
#2 Lycanthropy (Werewolves and the Frog Prince)
This condition is where a person holds the delusional conviction that they have transformed from a human into an animal. The name lycanthropy refers specifically to ancient tales of men turned into wolves – but from diagnosed cases of Lycanthropic belief there are people convinced they are a hyena, cat, horse, bird, tiger and even a frog. Of course the Frog Prince is the best known example from a fairy-tale of a shape shifter, but there are also lesser known tales such as ‘King Donkey’, ‘The Bird Husband’ and of course, Beauty and the Beast.
# 3 Capgras Delusion– The Changling
This is the unpleasant delusion that a person that the sufferer knows well has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor. Although they look exactly the same as the ‘authentic’ individual, the sufferer is convinced that they are not the same and that the ‘authentic’ individual has been changed or swapped for another. Just such a person is a common motif in fairy-tales – the ‘Changeling.’ This usually takes the form of a changed or swapped child, who has been substituted for the real child by a fairy or witch. It is now thought that the concept of a Changeling was a way for people to make sense of observed psychological or physical changes in a person that could not be attributed to any natural cause.