The Syndrome That Makes People Lie About How Many Legs Are On A Dog

For a long time, this controversial syndrome was thought to manifest itself only in prisoners. When it spread to the general public, doctors began questioning whether it really exists or not. You decide whether there is such a thing as Ganser Syndrome.

Sigbert Ganser's Inmates

In 1897, Sigbert Ganser noticed four different prison inmates exhibiting very odd behavior. Ganser, a psychiatrist, was pulled in because the inmates were noticeably absent-minded and confused. Sometimes they'd have visual or auditory hallucinations. Occasionally they'd fall into a semi-conscious state, during which they performed actions mechanically; afterwards they would emerge into full consciousness without remembering what they'd done. At times they'd become aphasic, aphasia being the loss of ability to do something such as walking, talking, or eating. There was no recognizable order to the abilities they lost. It seemed at random times they simply stopped being able to do random things.


Ganser diagnosed them with a disease that's now known by many names, the most famous being Ganser Syndrome. In its heyday it was known as Prison Psychosis. After Ganser published his findings, prison psychiatrists noticed that a lot of inmates occasionally came down with it. People wondered what horrible conditions the prison had to drive people to this particular kind of madness. Then they noticed that people outside prisons came down with the same thing. All it took to realize this was a few minutes of conversation with the affected people, because Ganser Syndrome's most striking symptom can be unearthed with a few very basic factual questions.

Approximate Answers

People who have Ganser Syndrome don't have total dementia. They clearly understand questions put to them. Their answers, even to the simplest of questions, are approximate. Getting approximate answers is a bit like playing a game of Mad Libs, where people take a story, fill in a verb, noun, or place name blindly, and then read the story, which tracks grammatically but is nonsensical. Doctors of one man with Ganser syndrome noted that he replied to questions with understandable but incorrect answers.

He said that a hen has 4 legs, a car has 2 wheels, a chair has 2 legs and that there were 365 months in a year. He said the month was 8 instead of August, and the year was 24 instead of 2004. When asked what he was sitting on he replied 'box' instead of chair. These approximate answers were interspersed with correct answers such as a cow has 4 legs. He said the colour of a red pen was white; however, he was able to name other colours and other red objects correctly.


All the answers made sense, but most of them were wrong. Unlike compulsive liars, Ganser Syndrome sufferers are unable to control their incorrect answers. Perhaps.

Is Ganser Syndrome Factitious?

In many books on psychiatry, Ganser Syndrome is listed as a factitious disorder — the same kind of disorder as Munchhausen Syndrome. Although some people start giving approximate answers after head injuries, or with lesions on parts of their brains, many patients come in after some stressful incident in their lives. The man described in the quote above had just come under a great deal of financial difficulty, and had to sell some much-loved land to overcome it. A young girl,whose aunt had recently died and who had been caught in a lie by her parents, took to saying her aunt was her real mother, and that fictional places in films were where she'd grown up. A man who had been through multiple difficult immigration experiences and gotten a tough new job had started telling meaningless lies. And then there were all those people in prison, who had to be under quite a bit of stress.


Some psychiatrists argue that Ganser Syndrome patients need psychiatric help, but don't know how to get it without acting out an extraordinary sickness. Their symptoms are just the way people with no understanding of consistent disorders would fake mental illness. Other psychiatrists argue that the extreme stress pushes people into a Ganser Syndrome organically, and that psychiatric involvement is not their goal.


Both sides agree that people in that kind of distress need help. Most Ganser patients have histories of depression and are treated with antidepressants. If this fails, as in the case of the man with financial troubles, electroshock therapy is sometimes used, but only with the patient's consent. In this case, the man improved after a few sessions, along with some counseling during which people assured him he made the right financial decision under the circumstances. The Ganser Syndrome faded, and he was released from treatment.

Do you think Ganser Syndrome exists?

[Via The Ganser Syndrome, Ganser Syndrome in a 14-year-old Girl, Ganser Syndrome, Ganser Syndrome with Work-Related Onset]


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