A seminal study on lycanthropy from the famous McLean Hospital (temporary residence of both mathematician John Nash and poet Sylvia Plath) reported on a series of cases and proposed some diagnostic criteria by which lycanthropy could be recognised:
- A patient reports in a moment of clarity or looking back the he sometimes feels as an animal or has felt like one.
- A patient behaves in a manner that resembles animal behaviour, for example crying, grumbling or creeping.
- According to these criteria, either a delusional belief in current or past transformation, or behavior that suggests a person thinks of themselves as transformed, is considered evidence of clinical lycanthropy. The authors go on to note that although the condition seems to be an expression of psychosis there is no specific diagnosis of mental or neurological illness associated with its behavioral consequences.
It also seems that lycanthropy is not specific to an experience of human-to-wolf transformation. In fact, there is a small ark of creatures that have been reported as part of the shapeshifting experience. A recent review of the medical literature from early 2004 lists over thirty published cases of lycanthropy, only the minority of which have wolf or dog themes. Canines are certainly not uncommon, although the experience of being transformed into cats, horses, birds and tigers has been reported on more than one occasion, with frogs, and even bees, being reported in some instances. A 1989 case study described how one individual reported a serial transformation, experiencing a change from human, to dog, to horse, and then finally cat, before returning to the (perhaps rather mundane) reality of human existence after treatment.
More curious are the reports of people who experienced transformation into an animal only listed as 'unspecified', leaving the reader to wonder whether the patient claimed to be changing into a creature so obscure, it left the hospital staff baffled. Perhaps we should be encouraging psychiatrists to brush up on their zoology in case they are missing rare species in their consulting rooms.
Clinical lycanthropy is a rare condition and is largely considered to be an idiosyncratic expression of a psychotic-episode caused by another condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or clinical depression.
However, there are suggestions that certain neurological and cultural influences may lead to the expression of the human-animal transformation theme that defines the condition.
One important factor may be differences or changes in parts of the brain known to be involved in representing body shape. A neuroimaging of two people diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy showed that these areas display unusual activation, suggesting that when people report their bodies are changing shape, they may be genuinely perceiving those feelings. Body image distortions are not unknown in mental and neurological illness, so this may help explain at least part of the process. One further puzzle is why an affected person doesn't simply report that their body "feels like it is changing in odd ways", rather than presenting with a delusional belief that they are changing into a specific animal. There is much evidence that psychosis is more than just odd perceptual experiences so perhaps lycanthropy is the result of these unusual bodily experiences being understood by an already mixed-up mind, perhaps filtered through the lens of cultural traditions and ideas.
Similarly, we have a large cultural resource when it comes to animal transformation experiences, as many societies have included this concept into myths, stories, or rituals. The natives of the Siberian plains had specific ceremonies to aid shapeshifting, including the preparation of a heady potion which used both opium and hemlock as ingredients. The Siberians were certainly not alone, and the desire to acquire animal abilities has permeated most, if not all, of the world's cultures. There have also been cases of 'feral children' seemingly raised by animals after losing their parents and many have been reliably documented in modern times. Psychiatrist Lucien Malson collected over fifty cases in his landmark book. More cases have surfaced since its publication in 1964, suggesting that some beliefs about lycanthropy might stem from unusual maternal relationships between humans and animals.
There is room to argue that the supernatural lycanthropy myths could originate from people relating their experiences of what could be now classified as psychosis. In reality the interaction between human experience and culture is difficult (perhaps impossible) to separate, and lycanthropy is no different. While mainstream psychiatry assumes that someone who believes themselves to be an animal is mentally ill, someone who deliberately tries to accomplish the same with psychoactive potions and ritual is considered a shaman in many societies around the world.
From this wider perspective, lycanthropy is perhaps one aspect of a whole spectrum of experiences involving identification with animals. It may be a little more striking than the banality of Teen Wolf and perhaps colored by anomalous activity in the brain, but it still gives us an insight into how the most extraordinary of experiences can reflect the society in which they occur.