The China Mystery Illness and the Power of Stories

4d9c7547g94283a8859d8&690From Undark Magazine: To Believe is to Feel: When a Mysterious Epidemic Isn’t So Mysterious

When U.S. diplomats in the Chinese city of Guangzhou recently started reporting strange, inexplicable symptoms of unknown origin — and which seemed to be spreading among State Department employees — I was reminded of a similar “mystery illness” that I spent some time researching a few hours south of Guangzhou, in a village called Fuhu.

One afternoon in May of 2004, a third-grade boy at a local school in Fuhu reported feeling that his genitals were shrinking. He panicked, ran home, and his parents fetched the local healer — an 80-year-old woman who had seen this sort of thing before: In 1963, she said, around the time of the Great Leap Forward, an “evil wind” had blown through the village and many people were struck by this illness known as “suo-yang.” She treated the boy by traditional means and he recovered quickly.

Two days later when the school principal learned of the incident, he gathered all 680 students in the school courtyard and, according to a report by Dr. Li Jie of the Guangzhou Psychiatric Hospital, “explained to the students in detail what had happened, and warned them to be cautious, and to take emergency measures if they experienced similar symptoms.”

Read the rest here.

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Geography of Madness: Spanish Edition

GOMespThe Geography of Madness is now available in Spanish:

Geografía de la locura: En busca del pene perdido y otros delirios colectivos (Ensayo General)

Una desternillante exploración de las extravagancias y los desvaríos colectivos: ¿Por qué ciertos individuos creen que unos vándalos roban sus penes o que tienen lagartos bajo la piel? ¿Cuál es el origen del vudú? ¿Existe el latah, ese curioso estado que provoca bailes frenéticos y movimientos espasmódicos? Frank Bures ha viajado por todo el mundo para rastrear los síndromes más estrambóticos ligados a la cultura y contar luego deliciosas historias sobre esas extrañezas. Se confirma una vez más que el hombre es un animal muy raro.

Read the rest here.

Geography of Madness: Turkish Edition

36586744The Geography of Madness is now available in Turkish:

Hangimiz, orta şekerli Türk kahvesi içtiğimizde şöyle bir ortamda göz gezdirip acaba bakacak olan var mı diye içimizden geçirmeyiz? Fala inanma falsız da kalma! Kimi zaman sırf eğlencesine yaptığımız, hatrımız için yalvar yakar baktırdığımız kahve falına, bizi gülümseten şeyler söylendiğinde hangimiz inanmayız? İnanmayız belki ama inanmak isteriz. İşte bu kitapta, inancın kültürler üzerinde nasıl etkisi olduğunu gözler önüne seriyor.

Paris Yayınları’ndan çıkan ‘Deliliğin Coğrafyası: Penis Hırsızları, Vudu Ölümleri ve Dünyanın En Tuhaf Sendromlarını Anlama Arayışı’ Frank Bures’in yayımlanmış ilk kitabı. Yazarın, Amerika’daki dergilerde yayımlanmış gezi yazıları da mevcut.

Read the rest here.

The Sound of Silence

c87f36d1-9a1e-4052-a68c-aa3806ad8a6c-1New story at Slate on Cuba’s Sonic Attacks:

A few weeks after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, several people working for the U.S. Embassy in Cuba fell mysteriously ill. Some lost their hearing. Some had headaches and a pain in one ear. Others reported feeling dizzy or nauseous, having trouble focusing, or feeling fatigued. Later, some would have a hard time concentrating, remembering things, sleeping, and even walking.

These symptoms were “medically confirmed,” as the State Department’s medical director Charles Rosenfarb put it, and brain scans were said to show abnormalities in the victims’ white matter, which transfers information between brain regions. The illnesses were believed by the government to be “health attacks,” carried out by a foreign power, though as Todd Brown, assistant director at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “investigative attempts and expert analysis failed to identify the cause or perpetrator.”

Nonetheless, investigators concluded the illnesses, which ultimately affected 24 people, were likely the result of a “sonic device.” This conclusion seems to be primarily due to the fact that some diplomats reported hearing a high-pitched noise in their homes and hotel rooms.

Despite a lack evidence for such a weapon, or any known way it could affect white matter, the sonic weapon theory proved irresistible for both media outlets and for Cuba hawks like Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, both of whom immediately transformed the sonic weapon into a handy political weapon.

Read the rest here.

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.

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.