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Suzanne O’Sullivan on psychosomatic disorders and other mystery illnesses, based on her book The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness

The Sleeping Beauties (book cover)

In Sweden, hundreds of refugee children fall into a state that resembles sleep for months or years at a time. In Le Roy, a town in upstate New York, teenage girls develop involuntary twitches and seizures that spread like a contagion. In the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, employees experience headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises during the night. These are only a few of the many suspected culture-bound psychosomatic syndromes — specific sets of symptoms that exist in a particular culture or environment — that affect people throughout the world.

In The Sleeping Beauties, Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan — an award-winning Irish neurologist — investigates psychosomatic disorders, traveling the world to visit communities suffering from these so-called mystery illnesses. From a derelict post-Soviet mining town in Kazakhstan to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua to the heart of the María Mountains in Colombia, O’Sullivan records the remarkable stories of syndromes related to her by people from all walks of life. Riveting and often distressing, these case studies are recounted with compassion and humanity.

In examining the complexity of psychogenic illness, O’Sullivan has written a book of both fascination and serious concern as these syndromes continue to proliferate around the globe.

Suzanne O’Sullivan is an Irish neurologist working in Britain. Her first book, Is It All in Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, won the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize and the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. She lives in London.

Shermer and O’Sullivan discuss:

  • how a neurologist/scientist studies anomalous psychological phenomena,
  • The Mind-Body Problem: “psychological” or “mental” explanations imply dualism, but most neuroscientists are monists: the “mind” is what the brain does. So, saying that an effect was “caused” by something mental is really just saying that it was caused by the brain. A “sleeping illness” or a “twitching illness” or a “mass hysteria event” or… is no different from saying “my brain caused my arm to move” or “serotonin caused me to fall asleep” or “oxytocin caused warm feelings for another person”
  • The problem of labels:

    • normal: conforming to the standard or the common type; usual vs. abnormal,
    • Freud called the process by which unresolved conflicts are expressed as physical symptoms a “conversion disorder.”
    • psychosomatic disorders,
    • functional disorders,
    • mass psychogenic illness (MPI),
    • folk illness,
    • mass hysteria: characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behavior or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness affecting a group,
    • “biopsychosocial” disorders,
    • psychogenic/sociogenic,
    • “functional neurological disorders” (FND),
  • Causes:

    • factors: social, environmental, medical, psychological,
    • looping effect: “If a model for illness is vivid enough and the basis for the illness is sufficiently salient, it is easily internalized by the individual and then passed from person to person.”
  • Examples from the book:

    • Sweden: children of refugees whose asylum applications are rejected: “Between 2015 and 2016, 169 children in disparate towns in Sweden had gone to bed and not got up again.” Doctors called it resignation syndrome.
    • grisi siknis that grips the Miskito tribe of Nicaragua. Those affected experience initially innocuous symptoms such as headaches and dizziness that then spiral into irrational behavior, convulsions and hallucinations. The illness is unique to the Miskito Coast. The cause? Unknown.
  • Havana Syndrome: diplomats in Cuba, experiencing headaches, dizziness, tinnitus and fatigue, became convinced that they were victims of a new and terrifying sonic weapon,
  • Witches of Le Roy (NY),
  • Dozens of people in three Nicaraguan communities have had tremors, convulsions, breathing difficulties and hallucinations that make them fight with superhuman strength and run into the jungle.
  • older victims in two small towns in Kazakhstan blamed toxic mines for their sleeping sickness and strange behavior,
  • fainting high school girls in Colombia were told they were crazy, attention-seeking and sexually frustrated (illness allegedly caused by the HPV vaccine),
  • witch crazes,
  • penis panics,
  • Sybil and multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder),
  • rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD),
  • false memory syndrome,
  • satanic panic,
  • sleep paralysis (alien abductions, incubi and succubae),
  • Pentecostal church services and mass hysteria.

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This episode was released on October 30, 2021.

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