All Freak OutThe mystery of mass hysteria.

All Freak OutThe mystery of mass hysteria.

Sometimes we feel so deeply that it causes physical discomfort, a visceral reaction that transports emotion to the body’s core. Immense joy takes the breath away; an awful sight induces nausea. An intense form of this relationship between mind and body is called “conversion disorder,” in which stress or depression manifest as convulsing limbs, blindness, paralysis. The emotional condition converts into a physical one. Physicians used to call this strange psychologically driven illness “hysteria.” Stranger still is mass hysteria, in which a group of people sicken from the same emotional trigger.

Imagine, as you ride the bus, a passenger steps off muttering threateningly. You smell something strange and catch the eye of another passenger who wrinkles her nose, frowning. Minutes later, the driver pulls over and is violently ill.Sweaty and gray, he asks if everyone is okay. Apparently not: You feel sick, and another passenger convulses with nausea, so the driver quarantines the bus until paramedics arrive. But they too succumb to the contagion. You and the other panicked passengers, fearing terrorism, wait to die, but everyone soon recovers. Such a scenario unfolded in 2004 on a bus in Vancouver, Canada. Mysteriously, health officials found no cause, so they diagnosed mass psychogenic illness—mass hysteria—triggered by shared fear.

Because we connect with each other emotionally, particularly under difficult circumstances, conversion disorders can move quickly from person to person. This happened on the bus in Vancouver. In 2011, it happened again among 19 students who began to twitch and shout unintelligibly at a school in western New York. Despite wild speculation about a toxic spill and government experiments, investigators could discover no environmental cause for the outbreak. The common root, it seems, was stress. Social and academic pressure manifested as tics and outbursts in one student, and stressed, empathetic friends soon involuntarily followed along. Other students learning about the outbreak via social media, suffered the same symptoms, adding a strange twist to an already bizarre outbreak. Medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew proposes that this case may demonstrate “a shift in the history of psychogenic illness, in which the primary agents of spread are the Internet, media, and social networking sites.” That is to say, we might all be carrying an agent of mass hysteria in our pockets.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 34

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