Views / Science Says

Metro Science: Mysterious 'sonic' attack in Cuba, distracted mammoths and encouraging loud music

The explanation for that mysterious attack on American diplomats? It's all in their minds. But that doesn't mean it wasn't real.

This file photo taken on December 17, 2015 shows a cart with flowers next to the US Embassy in Havana. No fewer than 16 Americans were hurt in what has previously been dubbed an acoustic attack on the US mission in Cuba, the State Department said on August 24, 2017.

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This file photo taken on December 17, 2015 shows a cart with flowers next to the US Embassy in Havana. No fewer than 16 Americans were hurt in what has previously been dubbed an acoustic attack on the US mission in Cuba, the State Department said on August 24, 2017.

It sounds scary: An attack on diplomats in Cuba with a mysterious, undetectable sonic weapon that causes hearing loss, ringing ears, slurred speech, headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds. Investigation turned up no such weapon. No poison. No infection. Doctors say sound can’t cause all those symptoms. What is plausible, but harder to accept, is a psychological explanation.

WHAT IS IT?

Mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a type of mass hysteria, is an outbreak of physical symptoms with no physical cause. It's a response to stress that strikes otherwise healthy people, and it's common all over the world. MPI is diagnosed only after chemical or biological attacks, environmental contamination and contagious disease are ruled out. In the meantime, public health investigators, emergency services, the evening news and social media are all drumming up panic, making stress (and symptoms) worse.

- Benign symptons that appear and go away quickly
- People fall ill after seeing or hearing about others’ symptoms
- Victims tend to be young and female
- Happens in a segregated environment such as a school or factory
- Community has pre-existing stress and anxiety

WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?

Exactly why psychosomatic complaints (symptoms with a psychological origin) can be passed from person to person, in a process called emotional contagion, isn’t clear. But the same hormones and neurotransmitters, including the stress hormone cortisol, that are involved in depression and anxiety also control physical pain, said Loren Martin, who runs a psychology of pain lab at U of T. You’re more likely to be influenced if you personally see someone you know well getting sick, he added, and there’s no “fakery or trickery” or attention-seeking involved.

Examples

The "toxic bus" of Vancouver, 2004

Twitching cheerleaders in New York State, 2012

The "dancing plague" in Strasbourg, France, 1518

Epidemic of hiccup-like vocal tics, Massachusetts, 2012

Mass fainting at Catholic mass (suspected), Sydney, Australia, 2013

Poison soft drink panic in Belgium, 1999

"June bug" skin rash epidemic, initially blamed on bugs, Ohio, 1962

Science story: Woolly-headed male mammoths

iStock

Young male mammoths were as distracted as today's teens with their texting and walking. A new study in Current Biology, says they tended to wander more and disproportionately died, compared to female mammoths, by falling through ice or getting stuck in bogs. These "natural traps" preserve their remains. That's why, the authors said, more male mammoth fossils survived to present day.

SOUNDS SMART: Your science vocabulary word for the week is psychoacoustics

Andres Plana/Metro

DEFINITION: Psychoacoustics is the study of how people experience sounds.

USE IT IN A SENTENCE: Deborah claims she has to blare death metal to do her homework, and ironically she is studying psychoacoustics!

Don't miss Metro Science Live

We're going on the road this week! Tune in to Facebook.com/MetroCanada at 12 noon EST to see psychologist Loren Martin explain how the brain affects pain.

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