People who give up the will to live — though otherwise in good health — can actually die from a phenomenon called “psychogenic death,” a report finds.
As Inverse noted, this phenomenon was observed in prisoner of war camps during the Korean War, where medical officers with the U.S. Army noticed that some prisoners simply stopped eating and talking about the future. Eventually, they would become totally withdrawn and motionless, simply staring at the wall until they died. The entire process took almost exactly three weeks and was seen a number of times.
John Leach, a senior researcher at the University of Portsmouth in England and a former military psychologist, says the phenomenon was sometimes known as “give-up-itis” but is now more typically known as “psychogenic death.”
“Basically it’s a horrible term,” Leach told Inverse. “But it’s a descriptive term. There were always those people who just gave up — curled up, laid down and died. In many cases, these were otherwise healthy men and women, and the thing that stood out was that their death was basically inexplicable. But it appears that there’s an underlying organic cause for it.”
Leach studied a number of other cases of the phenomena, finding that it is what Inverse calls “a dangerous manifestation of the brain’s survival instinct gone awry.” During these ultra-stressful situations, the brain releases large amounts of dopamine, which sets off a cycle that leads to patients feeling withdrawn and eventually an apathy toward living.
The phenomena of psychogenic death have been seen in other areas. As Motherboard noted in a 2015 report, it was also seen in some patients who were literally frightened to death in terrifying situations. This was sometimes called “voodoo death” as it was prevalent in societies with a strong belief in magic and hexes.
"Leach recently released a paper that suggests a potential explanation for what goes on in our brains when we cascade into life-threatening hopelessness." https://t.co/6gDGZu77RY
— Monsieur Daniel Costello Don`t Censor Canada! (@costellodaniel1) October 2, 2018
As the report noted, a Washington, D.C., woman who was sitting on her porch died when a plane crashed into a house across the street. The report noted that the woman saw burning jet fuel coming toward her in a “river of fire.” Though it never reached her and she was never in any direct danger, the woman died of fright.
“Adrenaline is part of the fight-or-flight response of the body to a circumstance that someone perceives as danger,” Gregory Davis, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner in Alabama, told Motherboard. “It’s meant to be helpful, of course, but sometimes — it’s rare, but sometimes it actually causes damage to individual heart muscle cells.”
It is not always fright that leads to this condition. The report noted that an elderly Bridge player was dealt a hand so good that it was a near statistic impossibility but died of excitement before the hand could even be played.
John Leach admitted that more research is needed for scientists to fully understand the phenomena of psychogenic death and how it occurs.