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The Game is Up: New Study Finds No Evidence for Havana Syndrome

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” —Sherlock Holmes

The “game” of my title refers to the one played by media outlets and podcasters for the past seven years interviewing rogue scientists and conspiracy theorists to spin tales of Americans being zapped by nefarious foreign actors with sonic or microwave weapons. This includes the authors of studies suggesting that there were brain and inner ear injuries suffered by many victims of Havana Syndrome when those studies were clearly flawed and any competent mainstream scientist who read them would have seen these shortcomings. Indeed, they did—there were at least two classified studies that found no evidence of such attacks, instead emphasizing the likely role of stress.1, 2, 3, 4 Publicly, these politicians and pundits were referring to the events in Cuba as attacks, yet gave no hint of the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies.5

On March 18, 2024, the National Institutes of Health released two studies that failed to find any evidence of brain or inner ear damage in victims of Havana Syndrome—a mysterious array of ailments that have befallen U.S. Government personnel in Havana, Cuba, since 2016.6, 7 The results were published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and are in stark contrast with two earlier studies published in the same journal in 2018 and 2019 that purported to uncover brain anomalies in American diplomats and intelligence officers who served in Havana.8, 9 While some media outlets are portraying this discrepancy as a deepening mystery, it is nothing of the sort.

The earlier publications were riddled with flaws.10 In fact, the editorial board of the European journal Cortex called for the authors of the 2018 study to clarify their methods or retract the article.11 Their attempt at clarification did little to quell the controversy.12 The NIH study was more comprehensive and took great pains to have a well-matched group of control subjects. The studies were conducted over a five-year period beginning in 2018. Sophisticated MRI scans were taken of the brains of Havana Syndrome participants and compared to a healthy control group of government workers in similar jobs. Some of the control subjects even worked at the American Embassy in Havana.

The Havana Cohort: A Group Under Stress

A major finding of the new study was that 41 percent of those who reported Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs) “from nearly every geographic area, met the criteria for Functional Neurological Disorders” (FND) or exhibited symptoms indicative of underlying psychological distress.13 It is noteworthy that mass psychogenic illness, which some skeptics have long tied to the episode, is a form of FND. The presence of functional disorders is not surprising because they are commonly triggered by stress and the American staff in Havana were, by any definition, under exceptional stress. They had been counselled that they would be under surveillance 24/7 once they arrived in Havana and later told that they may be targets of a mysterious weapon and to be vigilant for strange sounds and symptoms. They were even warned not to stand or sleep near windows as it could render them vulnerable to an attack. In FNDs the brain structure and hardware are unaffected, but the sending and receiving of messages is disrupted, hence neurologists often refer to it as a software issue.

Havana Syndrome participants also reported more symptoms of depression, fatigue, and post-traumatic stress. The lead author of one of the studies, Dr. Leighton Chan, emphasized that the symptoms in Havana Syndrome patients were “very real, cause significant disruption in the lives of those affected and can be quite prolonged, disabling and difficult to treat.”14 Another member of the research team, neuropsychologist Louis French, noted that the presence of mood symptoms and post-traumatic stress were not unexpected. “Often these individuals have had significant disruption to their lives and continue to have concerns about their health and their future. This level of stress can have significant negative impacts on the recovery process,” he said.15

No Evidence of Attacks

As for the role of a directed energy weapon that has long been proposed as the cause behind the events, Dr. Chan said if an “external phenomenon” such as “a directed energy ‘attack’ is truly involved it seems to create symptoms without persistent or detectable physiologic changes.”16 While the researchers found no evidence of an external source for the symptoms, this does not prove that there wasn’t one, leading one media outlet, the Daily Mail, to suggest that a weapon was likely involved but its presence was undetectable. The newspaper interviewed Georgetown University Neurologist Dr. James Giordano, a persistent critic of the possible role of psychogenic illness in Havana Syndrome victims, who was quick to dispute the findings of FNDs. “Let me be very definitive, we’re not talking about a functional neurological disorder, which is a psychosomatic disorder,” Dr. Giordano said. “We’re talking about a disruption of neurological function, that then created a host of effects, including downstream physiological effects that manifested themselves cognitively, motorically, and behaviorally.”17

Giordano’s position lacks supporting evidence. One could also argue that there was no evidence of extraterrestrial involvement, but that doesn’t prove space aliens weren’t targeting victims with a ray gun. On the weight of evidence, stress appears to have played a major role in the outbreak. While critics like Giordano have jumped on the statement that the symptoms were real and severe as evidence that they were not functional, psychosomatic symptoms are real and can be as severe as any other symptoms and often involve the same brain pathways.18

After release of the NIH reports, one of the world’s leading experts on FNDs, British neurologist Jon Stone, told The Guardian science podcast that this condition was a plausible explanation as many of the patient’s symptoms “got worse over time,” which is typical of a functional disorder. Brain injuries, on the other hand, are typically “worse at the time of the injury, then they slowly improve,” he said. The paper’s world affairs editor Julian Borger was then asked to weigh in. He said that while a “secret weapon” seemed far-fetched, it was equally unlikely that so many diplomats and spies would be affected by psychogenic illness. This response highlights a common misconception of psychogenic disorders: the symptoms are real and can happen to anyone regardless of education level or training.19

The Extraordinary Claims of David Relman

In 1953, Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir devised the term “pathological science” to refer to instances “where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking” and the like.20 The history of science is rife with examples of extraordinary claims that were eventually discredited. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries several astronomers, most notably Percival Lowell, claimed to discern through their telescopes a network of canals on Mars. This turned out to be an exercise in the subjective nature of human perception involving Martian geology where people saw what they expected to see. In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot claimed to have discovered N-rays, a new form of radiation that turned out to be a product of experimenter bias and self-deception.21, 22 In 1989, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann created international headlines amid claims they had achieved cold fusion—a limitless source of clean energy. Their experiment turned out to be flawed and could not be reproduced. To this list we should add the name of Stanford microbiologist David Relman.

Media coverage of the NIH studies has been dominated by the lack of evidence for brain damage and the findings of significant stress-related disorders in many of the subjects who reported anomalous health incidents. Considerable attention has been given to Dr. Relman, who was chosen by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) editors to deliver an accompanying editorial. Relman oversaw two panels that studied the claims of people reporting AHIs and the circumstances surrounding them.23, 24 He contends there is still a mystery surrounding some of the victims and holds the door ajar to the possible involvement of “pulsed radiofrequency energy.” The problem is, the two panels he oversaw showed bias by failing to interview prominent skeptics, ignoring evidence for mundane explanations, and giving considerable weight to unproven claims that supported his pet energy weapon theory. I have previously documented these and other shortcomings in Skeptic, including how one of his panels botched the diagnostic criteria for the presence of psychogenic illness.25, 26, 27 Neither panel conducted a single physical examination of a patient or engaged in any directed testing.28 The decision to choose Relman to write the commentary may be an attempt by the JAMA editorial board to mitigate the damage to their reputation after they published two poorly designed studies that have received much criticism by the scientific community.29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37

A bugaboo of Relman is the appearance of “abrupt-onset sensory phenomena” in a subset of patients on which he places great significance.38 In his commentary he mentions these cases while discussing “Havana Syndrome” reports from around the world. He writes: “Most strikingly, these phenomena often displayed strong location dependence, in that they quickly dissipated when the individuals vacated their initial location, and then returned when the location was revisited.” These incidents were followed by such conditions as “vertigo, dizziness, imbalance, blurry vision, tinnitus, headache, nausea, and cognitive dysfunction, sometimes leading to chronic disability.”39 The implication is that they may have been targeted by a directed energy weapon.40

In the press briefing, Dr. Chan said that his team looked at these reports that Relman had flagged as “cases of concern” for intelligence agencies—people who reported an acute onset coinciding with a “strong sense of locality or directionality.” But Chan said he was unable to study them as Relman had not provided the name of a single person involved, and that his definition of “locality or directionality” was not well-defined. Dr. Chan also noted that “cases of concern” were confined to “a really small group of individuals” who were affected very early in the outbreak in Cuba because early on U.S. Embassy personnel were counselled to move away from where they initially experienced symptoms. “If you’re on the X, get off the X,” they were told.41 Cases of concern were first noted in the National Academies of Sciences study that was conducted between 2019 and 2020, and only looked at reports in Cuba and China. If there were later cases of concern identified globally in Relman’s second panel that convened between 2021 and 2022, it was not conveyed to Dr. Chan.42

Why is it that the two panels headed by David Relman uncovered patterns that the American intelligence community—including the CIA and FBI—failed to find? This is a red flag. It is noteworthy that Relman’s panels had limited resources and access to government documents. For instance, in discussing the National Academy of Sciences committee and the attempt to examine cases of concern, he observed: “We did not really have the means to do our own investigation of these cases. We simply collected all that we could from those that had done various and sundry investigations and tried to make the most sense out of it we could.”43

While Relman claims to have found a small group of outliers, why weren’t the names of these victims given to the NIH study authors so they could be examined more closely? If these cases are deemed to be of such significance, why haven’t detailed interviews with these victims been released so others can read the descriptions? How many people are we talking about? The true test of the scientific method is to open your data to outside scrutiny, and in this instance, there is little to scrutinize. The ECREE Principle—extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence—was never more apropos. There are just too many questions surrounding these cases to make the claims that are being asserted. The symptoms in abrupt onset cases can be caused by an array of common conditions. While a sound may appear to be targeted, there is a considerable body of literature on ear-witness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable and subject to error.44 An energy weapon could theoretically produce what is discerned to be a concentrated beam of sound, but so can a cricket rubbing its wings or legs together. We know that some of the reports involving a beam of sound that accompanied early Havana Syndrome victims were recorded during the “attacks,” and later identified as crickets.45, 46 Curiously, Dr. Relman’s commentary was crickets when it came to this alternative explanation.

Occam’s Razor

Some media commentators and rogue scientists continue to speculate that a small number of cases in U.S. personnel in both Cuba and later around the world, may have involved a directed energy weapon. Yet, Occam’s razor fits well here. Given two competing explanations, the simplest is the most likely. The entire episode is explainable using conventional psychology, and without recourse to foreign actors and secret weapons. It is noteworthy that the NIH findings are consistent with the conclusions of a report issued in March 2023 by the Director of National Intelligence that found no evidence of sonic or microwave weapons or the involvement of state actors. Instead, intelligence agencies traced the health complaints to an array of pre-existing conditions, environmental factors, and anxiety reactions.47

The appearance of Functional Neurological Disorders in the NIH studies is consistent with the early events in Havana, which suggest a psychological origin. A 2022 interview with CIA officer Fulton Armstrong is revealing. Armstrong was in Havana during the initial “attacks” and says that the man who first reported the mysterious sounds and became known as “patient zero,” had engaged in a zealous campaign to get embassy officials to take the sounds seriously. “He was lobbying, if not coercing, people to report symptoms and connect the dots,” he said.48 This lobbying could have primed other staff to frame future sounds and states of unwellness as an attack by a nefarious state actor. It is also notable that when other staff believed they were under attack from a sonic weapon, they recorded the sounds accompanying them. These sounds were consistent with the mating call of the Indies short-tailed cricket.49

By 2017, the State Department began counselling new staff being posted to Cuba to be vigilant for mysterious sounds and health incidents.50 This counselling created an expectation of illness and provided the frame through which sounds and symptoms were interpreted. Suddenly, mundane events such as a headache, fatigue, insomnia, or tinnitus were perceived as symptoms of a possible attack—a classic setup for psychogenic illness.51 “Patient zero” was pivotal in laying the foundation for the mysterious sounds that were noticed to coincide with subsequent “attacks”—the sounds of crickets. While cricket sounds cannot cause physical sensations such as head pressure and tingling, hearing a cricket sound and fearing it may be emanating from a neuroweapon can trigger anxiety reactions. It is well-known that panic attacks often occur when people visit the same location associated with anxiety or previous attacks.

The Importance of Timing

Dr. Relman’s “cases of concern” raise many questions. As Dr. Chan observed, they were poorly defined, small in number, and not a single person was identified or further studied. Relman should release the information on each of these cases so their testimony can be scrutinized. The timing is also important. Relman contends that some of the early victims in Cuba were unaware that their colleagues were suffering from Anomalous Health Incidents.52 This claim is not consistent with the known timeline, which begins with so-called patient zero. This early series of events in Havana have been meticulously pieced together using interviews with over three dozen American and foreign officials and confidential government documents.53, 54

Scrutinizing these cases could help clarify the possible role of what psychologists refer to as “retrospective interpretation.” It is plausible that once alerted to their possible targeting by an energy weapon, staff would have thought back to when they arrived in Havana and identified any unusual sounds or medical events. While at the time these incidents were not deemed to have been worthy of seeking medical attention or reporting to their superiors, later, in light of the energy weapon scare, these ambiguous events could have easily been redefined as “attacks.”55

For years Relman has asserted that there was “clear evidence of an injury to the auditory and vestibular system of the brain” in some Havana Syndrome patients.56 This is a reference to a study conducted by University of Miami neurologist Michael Hoffer.57 The vestibular system deals with the workings of the inner ear, spatial awareness, and balance. Neurologist Robert Baloh, who created some of the tests that were used to assess the patients and has written the standard textbook in the field, has steadfastly maintained that Hoffer’s study was riddled with flaws and failed to demonstrate inner ear damage. Among the study flaws was the mystifying decision not to use housemates as a control group, and the notion that a directed energy attack could cause inner ear or brain damage without affecting hearing, which makes no sense.58 That the NIH studies failed to corroborate Hoffer’s findings comes as no surprise. David Relman is an acclaimed microbiologist, but he is not an expert in vestibular medicine. This is a classic example of someone outside of their field of expertise being led astray.

Relman’s attempt to take a small number of cases that are vaguely defined and discussed in passing in both his commentary and in his two panel reports, are essentially lipstick on a pig. No matter how hard you try to alter its appearance, at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. Like Bigfoot, chupacabras, and alien abductions, the evidence is lacking and there are alternative plausible explanations which are firmly grounded in established science. END

About the Author

Robert E. 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 two seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans, and Havana Syndrome with Robert Baloh.

  1. Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified United States Government study.
  2. Kirk, J. M. (2019). The strange case of the Havana ‘Sonic Attacks’. International Journal of Cuban Studies, 11(1), 24—42. See p. 27
  5. One of the most vocal has been U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
  14. ibid.
  15. ibid.
  16. Chan et al., 2024, op cit., pp. E10—E11.
  18. Personal communication with Professor Robert Baloh, Department of Neurology, UCLA Medical School, March 23, 2024. For an excellent overview of FNDs see
  20., quotation on p. 16 reproduced from the original 1953 article with commentary by R.N. Hall.
  21. Klotz, Irving M. (1980). “The N-Ray Affair.” Scientific American 242(5):168—175
  22. Nye, Mary Jo (1980). N-rays: An Episode in the History and Psychology of Science. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11(1):125—156.
  24. Declassified United States Government Commissioned Report (2022). Anomalous Health Incidents: Analysis of Potential Causal Mechanisms, IC Experts Panel.
  34. Baloh, R.W., and Bartholomew, R.E. (2020). Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. Copernicus Books.
  38. Relman, 2024, op cit., p. E1.
  39. Relman, 2024, op cit., p. E1.
  40. While Relman writes about the plausibility of the possible role of microwave radiation in his commentary, he has not always been so confident. After the National Academies of Sciences report appeared, he was asked by National Public Radio reporter Sarah McCammon, “How confident are you that microwaves are what’s behind these symptoms?” His response: “We were not confident…we didn’t have any direct evidence that this could explain the entire story for sure or even parts of it…[and] we were not familiar with or read into the exact circumstances of these cases, so we couldn’t comment on the situational information that might have either supported or refuted this idea.” See:
  41. Myles, R., moderator (2024). “NIH Telebriefing on Publication of Study Findings on Federal Employees with reported Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs) in JAMA.” This embargoed media briefing featured Dr. Leighton Chan, Dr. Carlo Pierpaoli, and Dr. Louis French who answered questions from journalists.
  42. Myles, 2024, op cit.
  44. Öhman, L. (2013). All Ears: Adults’ and Children’s Earwitness Testimony. University of Gothenburg.
  45. Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study
  47. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Unclassified: National Intelligence Council Updated Assessment on Anomalous Health Incidents, 2023.
  49. Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study. An updated analysis with similar results was published on October 16, 2021 and titled, An Analysis of Data and Hypotheses Related to the Embassy Incidents, JSR-21-01, McLean, Virginia, 143 pp.
  50. Oppmann, P., and Labott, E. (2017). “U.S. Diplomats, Families in Cuba Targeted Nearly 50 Times by Sonic Attacks, says U.S. Official.” CNN News, September 23.
  51. One Embassy staffer told me: “The Embassy was a tightly-knit community with a very active rumor mill; many people were buzzing about the incidents’ and the related ailments starting as far back as December 2016. We knew as far back as March or April [2017] that doctors were comparing the symptoms to Traumatic Brain Injury. We were absolutely primed to know what the symptoms were. Additionally, many of us *were* experiencing headaches, mental fog, irritability, etc. —completely understandable given the high stress environment and the fact that we went asleep every night wondering whether we’d be zapped in our beds, and consequently lay awake for hours at a time, days on end, stretching into weeks and months.”
  52. Merchant, 2021, op cit.
  54. Baloh and Bartholomew (2020). pp. 29—37. These are highly respected journalists and Golden has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting prowess.
  55. The NIH study found that the first reported AHI occurred in 2015. All previous investigations had placed the date as late 2016. But this does not mean we should push back the start of ‘Havana Syndrome’ to 2015. Once American staff were interviewed about their AHIs, they would have been asked to recount any unusual health incidents or sounds that they experienced since arriving in Havana. As the U.S. Embassy was reopened under Obama in 2015, it is conceivable that any mysterious sounds or health complaints that were recalled during this period, could have easily been relabelled after the fact as an incident or ‘attack.’ That at least one person reported an AHI in 2015 should receive no great significance.
  56. See, for example:; see also, Merchant, 2021, op cit.
  58. Baloh and Bartholomew (2020). op cit.

This article was published on March 26, 2024.

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