5 October 2020


Robert W. Baloh and Robert E. Bartholomew. Havana Syndrome - Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. Springer, 2020.

American diplomatic staff and American tourists in Havana, Cuba suffered from a spate of sonic attacks starting in late 2016. The situation was so bad that it helped derail a 2-year initiative to restore amicable relations between the two countries and led to the expulsion of several Cuban diplomats based in Washington. 
By April 2017 there was a high-state of anxiety and paranoia about these attacks and Embassy staff were advised to sleep away from their bedroom windows. When this strange situation eventually became public in July 2017, it was claimed that government investigations had concluded that an ‘advanced device’ located outside or inside the victims’ homes, or in two prominent hotels had been used in these attacks. The victims suffered symptoms ranging from headaches, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, memory loss and hearing problems, which included experiencing pain, pressure, tinnitus, hearing loss and sensitivity to sound. It was assumed a sound described as high-pitched, buzzing, chirping, humming or grinding was produced by this new weapon. 

The authors note that the authorities and media were entranced by the exotic idea of a secret weapon rather than by any mundane explanations. To back-up this viewpoint a study of 21 embassy staff found white matter changes in their brains. This was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that noted “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.” When their report was published in December 2017, in the influential Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the claims that had been leaked to the press were not supported by the evidence, and their threshold for defining impairment was so high that virtually anyone would fit their classification. 

A further study by the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, concluded that after examining 35 Embassy staff shortly after exposure to an attack, they showed evidence of having inner ear damage. At a press conference Dr Hoffer who conducted the examinations said his findings were entirely objective and ‘It’s not controversial. The evidence is there. The people had abnormalities.’ Although as this book notes the biggest symptom was simply dizziness and only a quarter experienced ear pain or headaches. 

In contrast, as early as March 2017 the Cuban authorities set up an investigation committee of the country’s top scientists, which issued its report in December 2017. After interviewing 300 residents in the areas involved, examining the two hotels involved and analysing air and soil samples for the presence of toxic chemicals they concluded that the U.S. attacks were a result of a ‘collective psychogenic disorder’ - in other words mass hysteria. They noted that audio recordings of the attacks were identical to the mating call of the Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus) and to the sound of Jamaican field crickets (Gryllus assimilis). 


Shockingly the U.S. experts regarded mass hysteria as being a sign of mental disorder and weak-mindedness, and preferred to stick with the exotic weapon theory. Microwave weapons were consider but the authors point out that for it to be effective you would need a large radar transmitter and the the head of the subject would have to be positioned directly in its beam. Instead the authors inform us that; ‘Mass psychogenic illness is a collective stress reaction in normal people.’ The symptoms are usually shaped by the context of the trauma and the power of suggestion is not to be underestimated. 

Many scares like this are caused by the 'nocebo' effect. This is the opposite to the placebo effect that makes you feel better through suggestion, instead the nocebo effect makes you feel worse. So in a stressful situation with negative expectations (e.g. rumours about acoustic weapons), ambiguous and common aches and pains turn into worsening symptoms of an attack. 

They give a good example of how the placebo effect and nocebo effect can influence behaviour in the context of the glass harmonica musical instrument invented by Ben Franklin in 1761. It consisted of spinning glass discs that produced ‘music’ much like that produced by rubbing the rim of a glass with a moistened finger. It was originally regarded as creating life-enhancing and pleasurable music that cure a variety of ailments, yet by the 19th Century it was regarded as being so harmful that it had a negative effect on listeners and could drive them to madness due to its influence on the nervous system. The instrument itself never changed but it went from having a placebo effect to a nocebo effect. 

In Cuba there was a credible threat as embassy staff were living in a hostile, foreign territory where they were subjected to 24 hour surveillance and intimidation. Therefore, it was easy for them to think they were being targeted by a weapon. Information about these ‘attacks’ was transmitted amongst the relatively small group of staff, and new members of staff were even informed that they might be subjected to a mysterious threat that could cause long-lasting symptoms before they were sent to Cuba. This made them all highly-sensitive to anything unusual in their environment and the state of their health. 

Scientific studies funded by the government gave rise to a conflict of interest and were heavily contaminated by confirmation bias - the JAMA study for instance was titled ‘Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba‘ so they already had the culprit in their sites. These seemingly legitimate scientific studies led to emotive newspaper headlines and media fears about mysterious attacks that cause permanent brain damage. 

It might seem amazing that the sound of crickets and a paranoid social context could cause such a scare, but the authors show that throughout history psychogenic outbreaks have been triggered due to the context of warfare, new technology, repressive religious and secular settings and by fears of insects, terrorists and phantom assailants. Basically, how we respond to the world is based on our expectations and those of our social/cultural environment. 

A book for everyone interested in how scares and social panics start and spread, especially in our era of fake news and conspiracy theories. 
  • Nigel Watson.

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