I THINK I’m Having a Baby!
Have you ever watched the show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”? I don’t know about you, but I have never understood how that could happen, because of all of the symptoms and telltale signs that come with pregnancy. What I am about to talk about is a condition that is completely opposite of this reality television show. It is a condition where a woman actually believes she is pregnant and gets all of the symptoms, including an enlarged belly and breasts, but there is no baby inside of her. This is called Pseudocyesis, or more commonly, Phantom Pregnancy.
I first learned about this phenomenon when I read Dr. Ramachandran’s book, Phantoms in the Brain. This book describes many different diseases and disorders of the brain that Dr. Ramachandran has observed in his patients, including Phantom Limb Syndrome, the man who actually died laughing, a woman who denied the whole left side of her body, and, of course, Pseudocyesis. In his chapter “You Forgot to Deliver the Twin,” Ramachandran talks about a case study in the 1930s of a woman named Mary. She seemed to be having a very normal pregnancy when she went to see her doctor at nine months pregnant. Everything was in place, her belly was dropped, her breasts enlarged, but her doctor could not seem to find a heartbeat. He eventually noticed that her belly button was not pushed out. (A trademark of real pregnancy is an everted belly button.) Dr. Ramachandran has seen this before, a common case of Pseudocyesis. Even when Mary was told that there was no baby inside of her, she did not believe it. So, the doctor told Mary he would anesthetize her and deliver her baby. When she woke up, he gave her the news that her baby had died after birth and, right away, her belly flattened. After a week, Mary was back, bigger than ever, telling her doctor that he had “Forgot to deliver the twin!”
Ramachandran believes this condition is mainly due to society and social pressures. Phantom pregnancy was much more common when women were expected to have a lot of children. The rate of phantom pregnancy in the 1800’s was about 1 in 100, where as now it is more like 1 in 10,000! Back then, women really wanted and felt the need to have children. They would get depressed if they were having difficulties, and this depression would lead to reduced dopamine and norepinephrine levels. Dr. Ramachandran explains that reduced levels of these neurotransmitters may lead to a reduction in hormones that mediate ovulation, menstruation, breast enlargement, and lactation. Some women may even experience morning sickness. This longing for pregnancy also makes a woman feel the need to look more pregnant, so a gas build-up in her abdomen will make her belly look big, and as her diaphragm falls, she will look more pregnant.
This example, like many others, shows the immense power the mind has over the body. In this case alone, the mind was able to alter a woman’s physical appearance, as well as her inner, molecular system. I guess now I understand the reality television show. If the mind is capable of making a woman truly believe she is pregnant when she is not, then the mind is undoubtedly capable of making a woman believe she is not pregnant when she is.
– Gianna Absi
Mind Over Matter – Science Blogs
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind – Dr. Ramachandran