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Above left: Cover page of the newly declassified State Department report which concluded that the Frey Effect was “highly unlikely.” The opposite conclusion was reached by the National Academy of Sciences panel. While one report was kept secret, the NAS findings were publicly released, raising questions. Above right: Page 93 of the secret JASON report which touted mass hysteria as a possible cause of ‘Havana Syndrome.’ The State Department publicly downplayed the idea while promoting the notion of microwaves - something that the report said was “highly unlikely.”

Havana Syndrome Hysteria and the Great Wild Goose Chase
Classified documents reveal skepticism of foreign actors & bolster the role of psychogenic illness

Have foreign agents been committing nefarious deeds, targeting dozens of American and Canadian diplomats and their families with an energy weapon, or is Havana Syndrome a social panic aided by sensational journalism, dubious science, and social media conspiracy theories? The contents of a U.S. Government investigation into “Havana Syndrome” released under the Freedom of Information Act, concluded that mass psychogenic illness likely played a major role.

This story is a good example of what can happen when politics is mixed with science.

The Biden administration’s probe into the origins of “Havana Syndrome” has been left reeling after the unexpected departure of the woman leading the investigation after serving in her role for just six months. Havana Syndrome was first reported in Havana, Cuba in late 2016. Over the next two years dozens of American and Canadian diplomats and their families reported complaints ranging from headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue, to confusion, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and ear pain. While it continues to be widely reported that many of the victims have been diagnosed with brain damage and hearing loss, based on the studies that have been conducted to date, there is no definitive evidence to support such claims — or that attacks took place.1 On September 22nd the State Department announced that Pamela Spratlen was stepping down after a teleconference with victims who were left incensed when she refused to rule out the possibility that the symptoms were caused by mass psychogenic illness. The question was prompted by media reports that a yet to be released FBI investigation concluded that the diplomats were the victims of mass suggestion.2

The Hysteria Over Hysteria

The hostile reaction to the possibility that psychogenic illness may play a role highlights the stigma that surrounds this condition, which is widely misunderstood by the public and among many in the scientific community. Within hours of Pamela Spratlen’s resignation, an ex-CIA officer who claims to have been the victim of a 2017 “attack” in Moscow, Marc Polymeropoulos, said that Spratlen’s failure to rule out “mass hysteria” was “automatically disqualifying” as the task force leader and “insulting to victims.”3 One of the diplomats on the call complained that Spratlen was “very clearly saying that she has not ruled out that we’re crazy.”4

Such misconceptions are common and reflect widespread ignorance on the subject. Mass psychogenic illness is not a mental disorder; it is a collective stress response that evokes real symptoms. It is a well-documented condition that involves the converting of psychological stress into symptoms that have no organic basis. It is not a hypothetical concept; it is an established condition in the fields of psychiatry and medicine. Several diplomats who exhibited symptoms of “Havana Syndrome” only to be told later that they were likely suffering from stress, have criticized the government for not taking their claims seriously. They point out that the Biden administration has stopped referring to what happened as “attacks,” but rather “unexplained health incidents” or UHIs.5

In recent months there has been a flurry of alarming news headlines about “directed energy attacks” on American officials in over a dozen countries involving nearly 200 people.6 It is often implied that the sheer number of reports is confirmation that something nefarious must be afoot. What is rarely mentioned is the context of the outbreak: the global explosion in cases coincides with a State Department directive to U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers to be on alert for “anomalous health incidents” (AHIs) that may or may not be accompanied by strange sounds.

In September, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin contacted the country’s nearly 2.9 million military personnel, contractors and civilian officials, urging them to report AHIs.7 He wrote: “Over the course of the last several years, and predominantly overseas, some DOD (Department of Defense) personnel have reported a series of sudden and troubling sensory events such as sounds, pressure, or heat concurrently or immediately preceding the sudden onset of symptoms such as headaches, pain, nausea, or disequilibrium (unsteadiness or vertigo).”8

This could easily generate thousands if not tens of thousands of reports, especially given that some claimants may attempt to seek financial compensation. In Canada, more than two dozen diplomats have filed a CAN$28 million dollar lawsuit against their government, arguing that they knew of the risks in early 2017, and failed to protect their citizens from a clear and present danger.9 I anticipate that the actions by Secretary Austin will generate thousands if not tens of thousands of reports. If just one half of one percent of those contacted file a report, that would translate to 14,500 claimants.

It cannot be overstated that “Havana Syndrome” involves a lengthy list of symptoms that are so vague and common as to be experienced by everyone at some point, and is likely to include a redefining of everyday aches and pains under a new label. This situation is reminiscent of the setup for many UFO and monster sighting flaps. After an initial sensational report, residents begin to scrutinize their environment for evidence of the perceived anomaly. Given the inaccurate nature of human perception, people start to see what they expect to see. A rustling in the bushes becomes Bigfoot, the wake of a boat is mistaken for a lake monster, and Venus is taken for a UFO.

Ordinarily, most people do not pay close attention to their surroundings, but during these flaps, dozens of sightings often pop up in a short period of time because people begin to over-scrutinize their environment and notice things they ordinarily would not. A classic example is the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic of 1954 when rumors spread that the region was being subjected to radioactive fallout from Atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. As residents searched for evidence of the fallout, they noticed tiny pit marks on their windshields that were assumed to have been caused by the fallout. Investigators later found that pit marks are a common feature of windshields. Instead of looking through them, residents began looking at, and noticing for the first time, marks that had been present all along.10

A Global Experiment

In alerting its diplomatic missions and now service members and contractors of the potential threat from mysterious energy attacks, officials have created what is essentially a global experiment in mass suggestion. Psychogenic illness can be thought of as the placebo effect in reverse. It has long been known that people who are given an inert substance with no therapeutic value such as a sugar pill, may feel better through the power of suggestion alone. The placebo effect won’t cure diabetes or lower cholesterol, but it can alter brain chemistry and physiology and how we experience pain. More recently scientists have identified the nocebo effect, where subjects can make themselves sick solely through the power of belief. For instance, if a patient has negative expectations toward a treatment, it can elicit symptoms that reflect the anticipated outcome.

The annals of mass hysteria are replete with examples of expectation causing psychogenic illness. In one case, soon after the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., a disturbed man on a Maryland subway began spraying a mysterious substance on a transit worker. As he was wrestled to the ground, his container spilled onto the floor. About three dozen bystanders began to exhibit symptoms ranging from nausea to headaches and sore throats, believing that they had been the victims of a chemical attack. The substance was later identified as a common window cleaner and the passengers quickly recovered.11

Classified Reports Suggest Psychogenic Origins

The contents of two separate classified U.S. Government investigations into “Havana Syndrome” have recently come to light. The conclusions of an FBI probe that were leaked to The New Yorker concluded that mass psychogenic illness was the most likely explanation.12

A second report was obtained after another news outlet filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The now declassified study was issued by a panel of top scientists in their fields under the code name JASON, after a character in Greek mythology. The panel has been providing classified reports on issues of national security since 1960. It concluded that the possibility of microwave radiation was “highly unlikely” and that the mysterious sounds that accompanied many of the “attacks” were made by insects.13 The report also found that “psychogenic effects may serve to explain important components of the reported symptoms.”

These findings were very different from the report released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in December 2020, which concluded that microwave radiation involving the Frey Effect was the most plausible explanation. The panel hypothesized that the Effect could have resulted in disruption of the nervous system and brain functioning.14 However, one of the first scientists to identify the mechanism in the Frey Effect called the NAS findings “science fiction.” Kenneth Foster, a Professor of Bio-Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania said it was “outrageous” that the government “sat on the JASON report for three years and let the invisible weapon fantasy continue when better information was available.” He says he has just completed a study on whether the Frey effect can be weaponized, and it is “highly unlikely.”15

Part Social Panic

This saga, which has endured for five years, can be described as a social panic. These events are as old as humanity and involve an exaggerated fear over a perceived threat to society — either real or imagined. Occasionally, they include mass psychogenic illness. The present scare combines two common themes: imaginary enemies and the fear of new technologies. While history is replete with similar panics, it is alarming that in the second decade of the 21st century in one of the most sophisticated societies on earth with an advanced legal, scientific and education system, so much false and misleading information has been perpetuated by scientists, journalists, and politicians.

The Rhyming of History

Social panics are a recurring theme throughout history and often reflect similar fears in a different cultural guise. They are given oxygen when key members of society exaggerate the perceived threat and promote rumors and speculation over facts.

For instance, during the German Scare of World War I, politicians, academics, and the press routinely made wild claims about the danger posed by disloyal Americans of German descent. As a result, thousands of citizens were accused of being spies and saboteurs for the Fatherland — often on the flimsiest of evidence. Swept up in a floodtide of fear, it was as if America had entered a period where normal rules of evidence did not apply. Sensational reporting from trusted news sources contributed to the scare. One headline in the Washington Post asserted: “100,000 Spies in Country!” The New York Tribune added to the sense of paranoia by proclaiming: “Spies are Everywhere! They Occupy Hundreds of Observation Posts…. They are in All the Drug and Chemical Laboratories.”16 Scholars further enabled the panic with scaremongering books such as Hudson Maxim’s Defenseless America.17 Even the editor of Scientific American, J. Bernard Walker, stoked invasion fears in his popular novel America Fallen!18 Politicians issued dire warnings such as President Woodrow Wilson’s Flag Day address to Congress in 1917 when he claimed that the country was infested with German conspirators and spies.19

The “Red Scare” of the early 1950s featured similar accusations and claims, this time by anti-Communist crusaders who saw Soviet agents and subversives everywhere. Careers were ruined as innocent people were falsely accused of sympathizing with Moscow. Once again, politicians, the media and academics served as enablers by exaggerating the threat. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller famously drew parallels with the Salem witch-hunts. There is a pattern with each of these scares: a threat is identified, prominent members of society affirm its existence, and a search ensues — be it for witches, German agents, or Communist spies. Before long, as people view the world through this new prism of reality, they begin to see evidence of the new threat everywhere. As American sociologist William Isaac Thomas noted, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”20

The Search Begins

Every outbreak of mass psychogenic illness or social panic is positioned in a unique context. The search for the perpetrators of “Havana Syndrome” can be traced to a small unit of CIA agents who were operating in Havana in late 2016. Two of the officers began to take notice of mysterious high-pitched sounds that were heard near their homes at night. Then on December 30th, one of the agents sought medical treatment at the U.S. Embassy health clinic. He complained of headaches, difficulty hearing, and ear pain — common symptoms that would be treated by most General Practitioners on a daily basis. What made his visit to the clinic so unusual was his observation that the symptoms seemed to coincide with a beam of sound that he believed was being directed at his residence. The incident was reported to embassy staff but didn’t raise alarm bells until it came to light that two other CIA agents from the same field office had also reported hearing sounds near their homes the previous month. Soon a theory emerged that the agents were being harassed by a sonic weapon.21

To an outside observer, the notion that intelligence officers were being targeted with a device that used sound waves to make them sick, may appear far-fetched. However, it seemed plausible in the historical context of U.S.-Cuban relations. Prior to the new embassy opening under the Obama administration in 2015, there had been a long and well-documented history of Cuban agents harassing American diplomats in Havana during the Cold War. Embassy workers would wake up in their homes only to find furniture and bookshelves rearranged, animal faeces and urine on their floor, and cigarette butts on their kitchen table, even though they didn’t smoke or have a pet. The Cubans were known to deflate tires, shine lights into diplomats’ homes, and suddenly cut their water or electricity supply.22

Phantom Attackers

There is an entire body of literature on phantom assailants. I have documented several cases.23 These episodes parallel what happened in Havana — only the form changes to reflect prevailing beliefs. Authorities eventually conclude that the “attacks” were entirely imaginary.

In 1954, a “phantom slasher” terrorized Taipei over a two-week period as police investigated nearly two dozen reports. Authorities would conclude that in the wake of rumors, residents began scrutinizing ambiguous, mundane cuts such as from brushing against an umbrella in a crowded bus, as slasher-related.

In Mattoon, Illinois during September 1944, residents thought they were being attacked by a mysterious figure who sprayed poison gas into their homes at night. The case became the subject of a famous study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. The “mad gasser of Mattoon” turned out to have been triggered by an array of mundane odors following inaccurate press reports of a real gasser.

People scrutinized their bodies for cuts and bruises (in the case of the phantom slasher) and redefined mundane odors (with the mad gasser). In Havana, people were redefining sounds as the initial rumors held that it was a sonic attack and diplomats were the target. They then began to scrutinize the sounds of insects — sounds they had heard before but never listened to carefully. Suddenly, any unusual sound was grounds to suspect they were being targeted. Anytime they began to feel unwell, they would listen for possible sounds from a nearby weapon. “Havana Syndrome” was born.

This episode can be summed up in an old adage: “Talk of the devil and he is bound to appear.” Havana Syndrome is a witch scare dressed up in a different cultural guise, making it more palatable for modern acceptance. Instead of witches, it is foreign agents who are being accused of nefarious deeds. A more appropriate label for what has transpired would be “Havana Syndrome Delusion” — the unsubstantiated belief, in the wake of persistent evidence to the contrary, that diplomats are being targeted with an energy weapon. It is a social panic that has been aided by sensational journalism, dubious science, social media conspiracy theories, and government bureaucracy. END

About the Author

Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has written numerous books on the margins of science covering UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot, lake monsters—all from a perspective of mainstream science. He has lived with the Malay people in Malaysia, and Aborigines in Central Australia. He is the co-author of 2 seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans (Anomalist Books, 2009), and Havana Syndrome with Robert W. Baloh (Copernicus Books, 2020). He lives in New Zealand with his wife and 3 children.

References
  1. An Assessment of the Health Complaints during Sojourns in Havana of Foreign Government Employees and their Families. Technical Report by an Expert Group of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, September 2021. Baloh, Robert W., and Bartholomew, Robert E. 2020. Havana Syndrome. Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus Books; Bartholomew, Robert E., and Baloh, Robert W. (2019). “Challenging the Diagnosis of ‘Havana Syndrome’ as a Novel Clinical Entity.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 113(1): 7–11.
  2. Suresh, Meera. 2021. “State Department Official Loses Job as Diplomats Seethe Over Havana Syndrome Response.” International Business Times, September 23.
  3. Lederman, Josh, and Breslauer, Brenda. 2021. “Diplomat Overseeing ‘Havana Syndrome’ Response is out after 6 Months.” NBC News, September 23.
  4. Ross, Jamie. 2021. “Diplomat leading Havana Syndrome response out after Angering Sufferers with ‘Mass Hysteria’ Comments.” The Daily Beast, September 23: https://bit.ly/3it8nTS
  5. Lederman, Josh, and Breslauer, Brenda. 2021. “In Intense Blinken Meeting, ‘Havana Syndrome’ Diplomats Complain of Skepticism.” NBC News, September 22.
  6. Charter, David. 2021. “CIA Agent in Serbia sent Home with ‘Havana Syndrome.’” The Sunday Times (London), September 29.
  7. Barnes, Julian. 2021. “Pentagon Asks Personnel to Report any Symptoms of Mysterious Ailments.” The New York Times, September 15.
  8. Austin, Lloyd. 2021. “Anomalous Health Incident.” Memorandum for All Department of Defense Employees, September 15.
  9. Carbert, Michelle, and Saunders, Doug. 2021. “Diplomats Launch Suit Alleging Ottawa Failed to Address Mysterious ‘Havana Syndrome’ Brain Injuries.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), February 6.
  10. Medalia, Nahum, Larsen, Otto. 1958. “Diffusion and Belief in a Collective Delusion.” American Sociological Review 23:180–186.
  11. Meyer, J. “Subway Spill Sends Jitters Across World.” Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne, IN). October 10, A. 6.
  12. Entous, Adam. 2021. “Are U.S. Officials Under Silent Attack?” The New Yorker, May 24: https://bit.ly/3mihGXL
  13. Vergano, Dan. 2021. “A Declassified State Department Report says Microwaves didn’t cause ‘Havana Syndrome.’” BuzzFeed News, September 30: https://bit.ly/3me4XVW
  14. Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects 14 on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study, 8.
  15. Personal communication with Ken Foster, October 2, 2021.
  16. Gilbert, James L. 2012. World War I and the Origins of U.S. Military Intelligence. Lanham, M.D.: Scarecrow, 34.
  17. Maxim, Hudson. 1916. Defenseless America. New York: Hearst’s International Library.
  18. Walker, J. Bernard. 2015. America Fallen! The Sequel to the European War. New York: Dodd, Mead.
  19. Leonard, Arthur R. 2013. War Addresses of Woodrow Wilson with an Introduction and Notes. London: Forgotten Books, 52.
  20. Thomas, William I., and Dorothy S. Thomas. 1929. The Child in America (2nd ed.). Alfred A. Knopf. 572.
  21. Golden, Tim, and Rotella, Sebastian. 2018. “The Sound and the Fury: Inside the Mystery of the Havana Embassy.” ProPublica, February 14: https://bit.ly/2YdspuN
  22. Baloh and Bartholomew, 2020, op cit., 37–38.
  23. Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Robert. 2009. The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. San Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books.
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