Mental disease?

I recently stumbled onto an interesting New York Times article describing the onset of a seemingly contagious disease that spread Tourett’s-like symptoms among teenage girls in a small town. The catch to the story is that many neurologists and doctors observing the case think the “disease” is psychogenic – essentially mass hysteria with no environmental or biological cause.

This is, of course, startling. After all, how can a psychological condition cause such bizarre symptoms? And how can it be contagious? Apparently, it’s not that uncommon.

Half of mass psychogenic illnesses occur in schools, and they are far more common in young women than any other category. Simon Wessely, an epidemiologist at King’s College in London and chairman of the department of psychological medicine, estimates that hundreds of outbreaks occur every year in the United States — just this past November, 22 students fell ill with stomach complaints at a football game in Houston, and no one so much as noticed outside the local news. Motor mass hysterias — twitching, fainting, stuttering — are more rare and draw more attention. In the past 10 years there have been three such outbreaks in the United States, which Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist specializing in the subject at Botany Downs Secondary College in Auckland, New Zealand, says is a surprising number for so short a period of time.

How could one person’s illness be reflected in another person’s neural pathways, playing a trick on consciousness, convincing the host that it originated in her own body? In the last decade, scientists have begun to explore the concept that regions in our brain once thought to activate only our own activity or sensations are also firing what are known as mirror neurons when we witness someone else perform an action or feel a sensation. Mass psychogenic illness could be thought of as the maladaptive version of the kind of empathy that finds expression in actual physical sensation: the contagious yawn or sympathetic nausea or the sibling who grabs his own finger when he sees his brother’s bleed.

Any two people, as they try to delicately disagree or flirt or compare notes on the best route to Boston, might unwittingly match vocal tones or even frequency of eye blinks. In one study, researchers found that subjects trying to form an alliance with someone else subconsciously tap their feet to match the tapping of that person’s foot, or touch their faces with the same frequency. “It’s happening unconsciously, but it is serving the goals you need it to serve,” says Jessica Lakin, the chairwoman of the psychology department at Drew University in New Jersey, who studies what’s known as the chameleon effect. … Mass psychogenic illness, whatever its mysterious mechanism, seems deeply connected to empathy and to a longing for what social psychologists call affiliation: belonging.

Weird and interesting. It seems clear we do not really control our bodies. We dance through life as twisted puppets under the control of the puppet master’s iron grip. We think we have autonomy but we are merely slaves to the black humors that fill the caverns of our subconscious. We are doomed as fools and idiots.

Happy Saturday!

1 Response to “Mental disease?”


  1. Is individuality possible? at My So-Called Penis

    [...] mentioned recently the interesting case of several schoolgirls in a small town who developed Tourett’s like [...]