Author: Paul Rogers
In 2016, CIA officers in Havana, Cuba, began to have unexplained health problems. Persistent penetrating sound accompanied by symptoms including headache, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss were reported. Was it a new condition? Or was it the last appearance of a century-old phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness, formerly called mass hysteria?
Since 2016, U.S. intelligence and foreign affairs personnel have recorded hundreds of incidents of what is now called “Havana Syndrome” on a growing list of global locations, including Russia and China. As most worked in hotspots of espionage, surrounded by traditional American opponents, many in the U.S. government and media soon began to suspect foul play.
Others are skeptical, theorizing that mass psychogenic illness (MPI) is indeed behind Havana Syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of physical illness in a group that appears to have an organic or physiological cause but actually stems from psychological causes, often anxiety,” says Gary Small, MD, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
The issue is far from resolved. But MPI is not a new phenomenon; examples appear throughout history. And while symptoms, patients and locations vary, some trends remain stable: these diseases are often born out of stress and spread like wildfire to close social networks. There are no two completely similar “epidemics,” but history can shed light on the current murky situation: if Havana Syndrome is another MPI, how can it be compared to MPI in the past? Can historical cases of mass psychogenic illness contribute to a better understanding of this elusive medical enigma?
Dance Mania, 1518
MPI has been recognized since the Middle Ages. Plesomania was first recorded in Europe in the 7th century and reappeared on that continent until the 17th century, making huge crowds that danced erratically sometimes for days. A significant epidemic in 1518 began with the feverish wandering of a lonely woman on the streets of Strasbourg in present-day France. Theories about why groups of up to 400 people followed their example include stress-induced psychosis resulting from widespread disease and hunger in the region.
The Salem Witch Trials, 1692
The infamous witch trials in Salem, MA, 1692-1693. they were a response to a number of girls who had strange, unexplained attacks. The cause of these cramps and their interpretation as evidence of witchcraft is still debated. But the factors cite are collective tensions resulting from recent epidemics and post-traumatic stress disorder due to King William’s war, from which many affected girls were refugees.
“You tend to see patterns,” Small says. “Affected people are often in isolated situations. There is a kind of stress that the group experiences without any means to deal with it. ”
Laughter Epidemic in Tanganyika, 1962
The laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962 began at a boarding school for girls in Kashasha, Tanzania. Starting with three students, laughter attacks lasting up to a few days spread throughout the school, leading to its closure. The epidemic then spread to the village where several students returned.
Boston School Incident, 1979
Small co-author a study about a 1979 incident at Boston Elementary School when, while performing in a play at the end of the year, an influential boy felt dizzy and fell, bleeding profusely. This elicited psychogenic responses including dizziness, hyperventilation, and abdominal pain in one-third of the student body.
“There are a number of psychological stressors among these children, let alone anxiety about the performance they experience,” says Small, whose findings suggested a link between childhood loss, such as parental divorce or family death, and susceptibility to MPI.
West Coast Unconscious Epidemic, 1983
In 1983, an outbreak of mass unconsciousness and nausea affected 943 Palestinian girls and several Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Israel and Palestine exchanged accusations of chemical warfare, but eventually a local health official concluded that although the first 20% of cases were probably caused by unidentified gas, they remained basically psychosomatic, according to Time magazine.
Santa Monica Disease, 1989
AND UCLA investigation a 1989 incident in which 247 performer students, mostly women, became violently ill at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, similarly noted that children who saw a friend get sick were more likely to develop symptoms, which were thus transmitted via social media.
Leg Pain Incident in Mexico City, 2006
Hundreds of girls at a boarding school near Mexico City experienced unexplained leg pain, nausea and fever during 2006-2007. It was a closed community, and students were denied access to television or radio. Almost family ties between them could have contributed to what psychiatrist Nashyiela Loa Zavala, who investigated the case, called the MPI’s “audiovisual contagion”.
How Havana Syndrome is compared
There are commonalities between at least some cases of Havana Syndrome and historical outbreaks of MPI. MPI usually starts among a small, cohesive group of people of higher status, in a stressful situation, and then spreads.
“Involvement of the four [CIA agents] from the same it becomes a defining feature of mass psychogenic illness, which is known to follow social media, ”says Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist based in New Zealand.
Most cases of Havana Syndrome are staff isolated away from home in foreign embassies, unlike boarding school students who are involved in many MPI epidemics. They are bound by a stressful work environment, under constant surveillance and are probably aware of the alleged previous use of microwave transmissions by Russia to disrupt US intelligence. Yet, for reasons of national security, they are usually unable to share related anxieties with family or “civilian” friends.
Some symptoms previously attributed to MPI, including headache, dizziness, and nausea, have been linked to Havana syndrome. Bartholomew suggested that “reshaping” these common complaints by those affected, to reflect what doctors and government bodies are telling them, could contribute to the phenomenon. In other words, people can have generic symptoms common in MPI and be subject to sinister explanations – without any evidence for them.
Outbreaks of Havana syndrome are sometimes separated by thousands of miles, seemingly eliminating audiovisual infection. But the internet has redefined the concept of “community” to now transcend geographical proximity. Social media and online news have undoubtedly made U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials aware of graphic descriptions of Havana Syndrome symptoms from colleagues around the world, some of whom would have been personally familiar to them from previous posts.
However, Havana syndrome does not meet all common MPI criteria. Small noted “the predominance of symptoms [of MPI] in girls or women compared to boys or men. ” Indeed, MPI is disproportionately affected young girls more than any other demographics. However, most cases of Havana syndrome were middle-aged men.
There is no consensus on the cause of Havana syndrome. Theories range from cricket mating to sonic weapons. Some experts believe that the early cases of Havana syndrome represent unequivocal evidence of neurological damage consistent with exposure to microwave radiation. Yet, at least in some cases, they remain open to the contributions of psychosocial factors.
“We found [microwave radiation] be most likely in explaining a subset of cases, not all cases, ”says David Relman, MD, a microbiologist at Stanford University who led the Havana Syndrome study of the National Academy of Sciences. Relman said the subgroup consisted of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, which was the second place to report symptoms.
James Giordano, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Georgetown University and a Pentagon adviser, said the original cases at the Havana embassy “had objective features – clinically related, objective and valid and evidence-based – that suggested some form of neurological trauma. or insults. ” But he noted that only a fraction of the world’s incidents have so far been confirmed to meet complete, objective clinical criteria for the type of anomalous health incident known as Havana Syndrome.
After 5 years, hundreds of cases on multiple continents and continuous, unconvincing investigations, there may never be a definitive answer to whether Havana syndrome is physical or psychogenic. But history can bring more clarity than Cold War-era espionage. Havana Syndrome has some major differences from the MPI epidemics of the past, but in many ways it is more similar than not – and paranoia in the U.S. intelligence community is unlikely to be unprecedented.
Paul Rogers is a British journalist based in Los Angeles. He graduated from the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex, and his work appeared in Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, LA Weekly, and many others.