Sunday, August 24, 2008

When adults are no more enlightened than their kids

In a city in Mindoro, Philippines, some two dozen students mostly female have experienced "seizures" in the past two months. The Inquirer reports that the children "were crying in pain as they suffered from seizures and shortness of breath in a paranormal [emphasis mine] phenomenon that has left a public high school here petrified and perplexed." The reporter has dutifully conveyed the symptoms to us readers. But how does she know the phenomenon is paranormal? How was she able to make the leap from observed facts to causal explanation? What's her definition of paranormal anyway?

So what could have afflicted these kids? School principal Henry Tungol tells us the students have been "possessed by evil spirits." Yep, the head of the school has promptly diagnosed the children as having been the victims of invisible supernatural entities. How did he come to know this? Through the process of natural ignorance of course. If something puzzles you, if something gives you goosebumps, if you have no medical expertise, if in your omniscience you can't explain it any other way, if all you can fall back on is the tradition of superstition you were raised in, then the phenomenon must be supernatural/paranormal. And if what's before you bathes you with a warm fuzzy feeling, then it must be good spirits, otherwise it's those pesky evil ones. Simple.

The Mindoro "epidemic" reminds me of St. Vitus Dance. A search on CSICOP revealed the following on what was known as tarantism, a disease that supposedly occurred during the summer months of July and August:
Symptoms included headache, giddiness, breathlessness, fainting, trembling, twitching, appetite loss, general soreness, and delusions. Sometimes it was claimed that a sore or swelling was caused by a tarantula bite, but such assertions were difficult to verify because the bite resembled those of insects. The dance frenzy symptoms resemble typical modern episodes of epidemic hysteria, in addition to expected reactions from exhaustive physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption.

The seizures did occur in the last two months, although as to the degree of difference in seasons/climes between Europe and Mindoro I don't know. The article doesn't say anything about "dancing" or any wild frenzied behavior so this may be a totally different type of hysteria we're dealing with here.

Among the various candidate explanations, there is one which for now I don't give high points. We're told that exams were just around the bend. It's possible that some of these high school kids conspired to play a prank on their community and feigned "possession," not least to disrupt exam week.

But whatever the nature of this Mindoro event, the most prudent course of action is to check mundane, natural explanations before even entertaining notions of paranormal, demonic, supernatural, or what have you. We know that children can be mischievous, we know that medical and psychological conditions exist. We work with and from what we know, not from that which has no empirical base to support it whatsoever.


Liz Ditz said...

I don't think it is kids conspiring to pull a prank -- here you go:

Mysterious Illnesses Often Turn Out to Be Mass Hysteria

A person smells or tastes something funny and soon complains of feeling ill. Minutes later, witnesses also feel strange. The outbreak spreads like a chain reaction. Many go to a hospital. But after physical examinations and dozens of blood tests, nothing significant shows up. Health officials are summoned but find no cause. A few days later, relapses and possibly a new wave of attacks may occur. When the all-clear is given, the diagnosis is mass hysteria, also known as epidemic hysteria, mass psychogenic illness and mass sociogenic illness.

Epidemic Hysteria: School Outbreaks 1973-1993
Fran├žois Sirois

Hospital Laval, Sainte Foy, Que., Canada

Med Princ Pract 1999;8:12-25 (DOI: 10.1159/000026064)


Objective: Increased reporting of outbreaks has brought more familiarity with the syndrome but no more accurate knowledge about the nature and mechanisms of such episodes. As it has become an area for an expanding field of competitive explanations, the review is intended to find any additional epidemiological cues and any clarification about methods of investigating such outbreaks. Methods: The retrieval of data was organized upon a choice to have a homogeneous sample rather than a comprehensive one. Newspapers and sociological sources were left out. A Medline search with cross-referencing was conducted to select the outbreaks limited to the standard school type. Reports were examined from two points of view: the descriptive epidemiological parameters and the mode of reporting the outbreaks. Results: Forty-five episodes were studied. A historic shift in the manifest presentation is apparent: larger groups are involved for a shorter time. A period at risk has been identified: the last 2 months of the school calendar. The peak age of affected children is 12. A downward age spread is present in 14/20 episodes where suitable information is provided. Methods of reporting were classified into four categories: descriptive (n = 24), public health reports (n = 7), case-control (n = 7), case study (n = 7). Diagnosis of exclusion for environmental contamination is still a prevalent mode of reporting but does not make the outbreak intelligible. Conclusion: (1) A two-step approach is suggested: a simple environmental check for short and uneventful outbreaks; an intensive case study for any episode with long duration or recurrence. (2) Two hypotheses for future testing are proposed: a hypothesis of arousal, probably of a benign, age-specific, and sexual nature, in short simple cases; a hypothesis of conflict in the long or recurrent ones.

Nothing supernatural here -- just a well-known psychological illness.

Anonymous said...

Mass hysteria is the most likely cause of the seizure-like activity in these teenage girls.

True seizure epidemics can occur due to infectious causes (but the kids would be ill before the seizures struck) or due to poisoning by massive exposures to certain pesticides or wood preservatives. Again, the illnesses would be prolonged and have other symptoms.

Edwardson said...

Thanks for all those info on hysteria.