Mass Hysteria

09 Feb

Apparently there is a case of mass hysteria, or “psychogenic illness”, in upstate NY. Of course, there’s a stigma against mass hysteria because it makes it seem as though the hysteria isn’t real. It is very much real, it’s just that people, more importantly, that mass of flesh in our heads that controls 99% of the events in our body, has a less than ideal method for determining what’s real and what’s not.

The condition may sound unlikely, but it is real, and it has in the past caused significant problems for emergency services. For example, after terrorists released toxic gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, commuters fell ill with mass dizziness and nausea. But doctors found that more than 70% of the 5,500 people who sought help at hospitals for gas-related symptoms turned out not to have been significantly exposed [PDF].

Similarly, strange smells in schools, businesses and factories have set off numerous outbreaks of fainting, nausea and cramps in the absence of actual chemical dangers, typically affecting only those who have seen other affected people or who believe the smell is dangerous. Recent decades have seen cases in Jordan, France and Colorado.

A 2011 study led by Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University in New York found that psychogenic symptoms can even be deliberately induced in normal, healthy adults. In the research, participants were given a pill and told that it was an experimental drug that had mild side effects and was being tested to increase effectiveness of flu treatment during a pandemic. Sixty-seven people participated in the study, which took place in a hospital.

Researchers divided the participants into three groups: one group received the pill (actually a placebo) in the presence of actors who also took it and displayed symptoms like nausea, headache and dizziness. A second group took the pill in the presence of actors faking symptoms and also watched a documentary about pandemic flu. A third group simply sat in the waiting room after taking the pill.

The participants who took the pill with the actors were 11 times more likely to show signs of illness than the control group — regardless of whether they watched the documentary. Some people developed symptoms that the actors had not even displayed. (They were all debriefed about the research afterward, and none objected to the earlier deception.)

Of course, labeling a condition as “psychogenic” or, worse, “hysteria” seems belittling and demeaning. Many people mistakenly believe that this means affected people are faking their symptoms and can control them. Despite the strides made by modern neuroscience, the stigma associated with conditions that are not physical in origin or “all in your head” still runs deep.

Not surprisingly, some parents and affected students in Le Roy, N.Y. — some who have had to drop out of school because of their condition — have objected to their diagnosis. One father told the Today show earlier this month, “Obviously we are all not just accepting that this is a stress thing … It’s heart wrenching. You fear your daughter’s not going to have a normal life.”

But stress is not just a mental phenomenon. Broderick explains that stress can actually change the body’s physiology. “Stress responses are not just psychological,” she says. “They also involve physiological responses [like] increased heart rate.”

In mass psychogenic illness, she says, “we believe it is the physiological response that individuals misinterpret as evidence of infection [or] contamination. This leads to fear and even more anxiety, creating a powerful experience of illness.”

This all reminds me of an episode of Derren Brown where he had given a group of atheists a “religious experience”. This also has implications for church, and how religious frenzies and even born again experiences are contagious. This is probably why church camps have those “born again” events en masse, so that the unsuspecting pre-Christian is sort of “forced” to have a born again experience because other people were having them.

It’s amazing how the brain can affect the body and vice versa. One thing is certain, though. There’s no strict dichotomy between “only in your head” symptoms and “actual” symptoms. If symptoms are real or psychogenic, both are controlled by the brain. It just depends on the part of the brain that is responsible for it.

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

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Posted by on February 9, 2012 in cognitive science


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