By Paul Rogers
In 2016, CIA officers in Havana, Cuba, started having unexplained health issues. They reported a persistent piercing sound followed by symptoms including headaches, nausea, vertigo, trouble concentrating, and memory loss. Was it a new condition? Or was it the latest incidence of the centuries-old phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness, formerly called mass hysteria?
Since 2016, hundreds of incidents of what is now dubbed “Havana syndrome” have been recorded by U.S. intelligence and Foreign Service personnel in a growing list of global locations, including Russia and China. As most were working in hotbeds of espionage, surrounded by traditional U.S adversaries, many in the American government and media soon began to suspect foul play.
Others are skeptical, theorizing that mass psychogenic illness (MPI) is really behind Havana syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of a physical illness in a group that appears to have an organic or physiological cause, but actually stems from psychological causes, often from anxiety,” says Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
The question is far from settled. But MPI is not a new phenomenon; examples pop up throughout history. And while the symptoms, patients, and locations differ, some trends hold steady: these illnesses are often born of stress, and they spread like wildfire among close social networks. No two “epidemics” are exactly alike, but history may shed some light on the present murky situation: If Havana syndrome is another MPI, how does it compare to MPIs in the past? Can historical instances of mass psychogenic illness contribute to a better understanding of this elusive medical enigma?