Festival Season: Upcoming Appearances

It’s festival season again, and over the next few weeks I’ll be speaking at two. First, on Sunday October 29th I’ll be talking about the power of belief at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The following weekend on Saturday, November 4, I’ll be in Madison for the Wisconsin Book Festival. If you’re near either one, please stop by! Details below:

CHF_Logo-No_Tagline_RedThe Geography of Madness
Sunday, October 29, 4 – 5 PM
Chicago Athletic Association, Stagg Court
12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603

Is there a connection between mental health, disease, and belief? In Geography of Madness, journalist Frank Bures offers a resounding yes. In tracking the delusion that one’s genitals can be stolen—a relatively common complaint in countries ranging from Nigeria to Singapore—Bures sought to uncover the roots of a whole range of “culture–bound syndromes,” and how people’s beliefs about their health shape their physical experiences of health. Join Bures for a conversation about penis theft, placebos, and the intersection of Western and Chinese medicine.

main_logoThe Geography of Madness
11/04/2017, 4:00pm
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, DeLuca Forum

The Geography of Madness is an investigation of “culture-bound” syndromes, which are far stranger than they sound. Why is it, for example, that some men believe, against all reason, that vandals stole their penises, even though they’re in good physical shape? In The Geography of Madness, acclaimed magazine writer Frank Bures travels around the world to trace culture-bound syndromes to their sources–and in the process, tells a remarkable story about the strange things all of us believe.

Presented in partnership with the Wisconsin Science Festival.

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Ill Winds: On Fan Death

lead_960Had a nice interview with Katie Heaney for her story at The Atlantic:

Is My Electric Fan Going to Kill Me in My Sleep?

When I was a kid, someone told me that running a fan too close to my face was dangerous to my health, and I’ve kind of believed it ever since. For the 20-some years since, I’ve assumed that person was one of my parents, but when I mentioned this to them recently, neither had any idea what I was talking about. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d believe,” my dad said, and he’s right, it doesn’t. But I know someone in my home once told me to move my fan further away from my bed so I wouldn’t get sick overnight, and if it wasn’t my parents, then who was it? My best guess at this time is a paranoid babysitter. No matter that I never encountered any substantiating evidence; the idea of a fan’s concentrated breeze making me sick held enough intuitive sway in my childhood psyche that it stuck there. Even though I know now that it isn’t exactly true, I wonder if there’s something to the idea—it had to come from somewhere. Right?

In fact, many cultures across the globe have their own stories of wind-based illnesses, says Frank Bures, author of The Geography of Madness. In his book, Bures writes that some ancient Chinese medical texts warned readers of “wind insanity” and even “wind stupidity.” Variations on these beliefs persist today, too; in Italy, people wear scarves around their necks to protect against colpo d’aria (a hit of air), and in the Czech Republic, some people fear the wind from air conditioners and refrigerators, believing they cause rheumatism, among other health issues. Most (if not all) Americans have been told not to go outside with wet hair lest we “catch a chill”—a belief in a cause-and-effect model with little scientific backing. Perhaps the most extreme form of these supposed illnesses can be found in Korea, where they call it something else: fan death, or the belief that running a fan in an enclosed room will actually kill you.

Read the rest here.

 

Paperback Writer: Geography of Madness

Paperback Release

I’m very happy to announce the publication of the paperback edition of The Geography of Madness by Melville House. The past year has been full of fascinating conversations on everything from missing members to the mysteries of PMS. It seems like the tide is turning toward a more nuanced, less mechanistic, view of how the body and mind interact. If Geography helped advance that discussion, I am glad.

Below is a roundup of reviews and interviews that have come out since the hardcover publication, for which I’m deeply grateful. I want to thank everyone who bought and read the book. I hope it rang true on some level.

Interviews
The Atlantic: Diseases You Only Get if You Believe in Them
Toronto Globe and Mail: Penis thieves? Voodoo death? Frank Bures suggests such maladies aren’t all in our heads
Meaning of Life TV: Culture-bound syndromes
Rain Taxi: The Fluidity of the Human Brain
The Isthmus: On the trail of penis thieves

GoMmech.indd

 

Reviews
New Scientist: Stolen penises and other exotic psychological tales
The Australian: From penis thieves to voodoo
The Guardian: Is your penis really shrinking?
Maclean’s: Penis thievery and other strange syndromes
Star Tribune: “Ambitious and exhaustively reported, this thoughtful book examines culture, beliefs and madness.”

 

Further discussion
Slate: We’re not scientists, but PMS is real.
Vox: Of course PMS is “real.”
New York: Yes, PMS IS Real

 

Reviews in other languages:
Enfermedades que tienes sólo si crees en ellas
Più crediamo di essere stressati più lo siamo veramente
Kroppen, själen, penistjuven
Er zijn ziektes die je alleen hebt als je gelooft dat ze bestaan

Creepy Clowns, Pizzagate and American Panics

526388637From Powells.com

To a village dweller on Hainan, the Great American Clown Panic of 2016 would certainly seem strange, while the 1985 ghost panic of Hainan would make a certain amount of sense. This was largely because they had heard the stories about genital-stealing ghosts before. Older residents “vividly remembered previous epidemics in 1948, 1955, 1966 and 1974” that had also affected hundreds of people. Our culture is the ecosystem of narratives that we belong to. One study found that the difference between victims and non-victims was 100 percent of victims had prior knowledge of the danger of the fox ghost, and 100 percent of them had a fear of death due to genital retractions. Culture-bound syndromes and mass panics emerge from the stories that we believe could be true.

Dark CarnivalFor the same reason, the clown panic makes a certain kind of sense to us: we have heard this story before. “The story always sounds real,” says Robert Bartholomew, author of Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior and many other books on the topic. “A pedophile or sadist trying to lure people into the woods. Yet when you look into it, these stories go back for centuries. Folklorists have a name for them: bad clown narratives, or killer clown, phantom clown, stalking clown. For me, phantom clowns are the bogeyman in another guise. They are living folklore. They are a modern myth in the making.”

Clowns, in our culture, have a long and complicated history. According to Bartholomew they were viewed positively until the late 1800s, when they began to appear in operas as murderers. Around the Great Depression in 1930, traveling circuses hit hard times, so they spun off into smaller sideshow carnivals. These were called “Dark Carnivals” (like the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name) and there clowns were dark, creepy, and scary.

Read the rest here.

Clowns._America

Geography of Madness: Book Club Edition

GoMmech.inddIf you’re considering The Geography of Madness for your book club, please feel free to contact me, and to use the questions below for your discussion.

Book Club Discussion Questions:

1) One main themes of The Geography of Madness is that stories (about the world, about our lives, about our bodies) are contagious. Can you think of a story, or an experience, that changed what you believed was possible?

2) Do you believe the brain and the mind are the same thing? If not, what is the difference?

3) The stories in The Geography of Madness raise the question of free will: How much do you choose the life you live? How much do you learn (or catch) you life choices from those around you?

4) Have you ever found yourself immersed in a situation where you did not know the rules? What was that like?

5) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that our mindset and our expectations have biological consequences. Does that resemble your experience? If so, how?
[Further reading: On the Body as Machine.]

6) Try to imagine living in a world where it was possible to have your genitals stolen, either by magic or by ghosts. How would you protect yourself?

7) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that a strong sense of self—of your story— can help to activate your endogenous (internal) healing systems and vice versa. Do you remember a time when a stressful or difficult period seemed to be followed by a health problem or sickness?
[Further reading: Writing the Self]

8) In The Geography of Madness, did anyone’s genital actually disappear? If not, what happened? Does it matter?

9) Is there a belief that everyone around you holds, but that you don’t share? How did you come to doubt this?

10) The Handbook of Depression points to a genetic marker associated with greater vulnerability to depression. Yet this link only holds true in Western cultures. Why would that be?

11) Have you ever had a health problem you were afraid to talk about, or that others didn’t believe in?

12) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that cultural syndromes are “real” syndromes, but that their causes might not lie where we think they do. Do you think they are “real” or “imaginary”?

13) Over the last few years, gluten intolerance has been rising. This rise occurs at a time of increasing anxiety about the relationship between food, health and identity. What’s changed: our bodies or our culture?

14) After reading The Geography of Madness, how would you describe what culture is?

15) How much does a your culture create you? How much do you create your culture?

16) Have you ever had a cultural syndrome?

Beyond the Machine Age

From Undark:

It used to be that when I looked in the mirror, I saw many things: a body; a collection of cells; a fantastic kind of machinery. I didn’t see these things because they were a reflection of reality, or because the body and brain are, in fact, machines. I saw them because I was born in America, and that is my culture.

In our country, we have what’s known as a mechanistic understanding of our bodies. We imagine ourselves to be machines made of meat and bone. We see the doctor as a mechanic whose job is to find the broken parts and fix them. For at least a century this has been our primary metaphor for talking about sickness and health, about how our bodies work and break down. In its popular 1960s television special, National Geographic flatly described the human body as “The Incredible Machine.”

The body is incredible, but my view of it as a machine — the validity of that metaphor — started to break down in the process of researching my book, “The Geography of Madness,” about the so-called “cultural syndromes.”

“Of course, one cannot think without metaphors,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1989 essay, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” “But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.”

Read the rest here.

newbod

On Rimbaud’s Trail

From Longitude Books:

One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.

What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.

Read the rest hereIMGP3480.JPG.