Part 3: When mass paranoia occurs through mass suggestion.
“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
Fear and Suggestibility
In Part 2 of this series, we looked at how delusions and delusion-like beliefs can sometimes come to be shared by other people. Here in Part 3, let’s examine a case in point.
Beyond their own individual experiences, online discussions between T.I.s often cite historical examples of the alleged weaponization of microwaves by foreign governments. For example, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the US Embassy in Moscow was subjected to 2.5-4.0 gigahertz microwaves (the “Moscow Signal”) for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Despite the US State Department and Johns Hopkins University collaborating on a study that found no evidence of any health effects from such exposure, public knowledge of the incident resulted in widespread panic about an “invisible threat” here in the US from the “zapping of America” via sources ranging from TV antennas to microwave ovens.1
More recently, American diplomats and their family members reported hearing zapping, buzzing, grinding, or pulsing noises while stationed in Cuba starting in 2016 with the subsequent development of various physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, dizziness, and hearing loss. This led to fears of being subjected to “stealthy attacks with sonic weapons” and “hearing microwaves” via something called the microwave auditory effect (a.k.a. the Frey Effect). This possible exposure was investigated by the FBI as well as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that published an uncontrolled (e.g. no comparison group, unlike in the “Moscow Signal” study) case series documenting evidence of “widespread brain network dysfunction” similar to that seen in mild traumatic brain injury or concussion and suggesting a causal link to “reported directional audible and/or sensory phenomenon of unknown origin.”2
A subsequent neuroimaging study reported significant white matter changes in the brains of a larger group of potentially exposed subjects compared to controls.3 As a result, US State Department officials became convinced that there was “medical evidence” of a sonic microwave attack and regarded it as a legitimate threat. Likewise, various academic researchers have since published papers supporting the theory that the “Havana syndrome” was caused by pulsed microwave radiation.4,5
Jamaican field cricket (Gryllus assimilis)Source: Schönitzer/CC BY-SA 3.0
Note that even if “Havana syndrome” could actually be explained by the microwave attacks perpetrated by the likes of foreign entities like Russia, we’d still need a plausible explanation—recalling that paranoia and grandiosity are two sides of the same coin—of why such attacks would also be directed at “average Joes” here in the US to account for gang stalking. But in reality, there’s very little objective evidence to support that microwave attacks do offer the best explanation for Havana syndrome. Several other theories, just as plausible or if not more so, have attributed the “sonic attacks” to the sounds of the Jamaican field cricket and the various symptoms to a classic case of mass hysteria.6 Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist and expert in mass psychogenic illness, has written extensively in his own Psychology Today blog called It’s Catching and elsewhere about his conclusion that the “Havana syndrome” is best explained by psychogenic illness,7 claiming, “I’ll stake my career on it.” He has noted that while initial symptoms were reported by only a small number of people, it later spread when reports of a possible “sonic attack” first appeared and others were warned about it.
“Mass psychogenic illness,” formerly known as “mass hysteria”—a more pejorative term that’s no longer favored, describes the well-documented occurrence of groups of people reporting various nonspecific symptoms in response to stress, fears, and perceived threats, especially through the power of suggestion related to a specific fear.7,8 I’ve briefly experienced something like it more than once. When doctors who have been examining hospitalized patients daily are later informed that a patient has an infection with lice or scabies, we suddenly become very itchy. More accurately, we become hypervigilant and notice every little itch that wouldn’t normally rise to the level of our conscious awareness. And then we worry that we have lice or scabies—we attribute it to the cause we’re worried about, at least for a brief moment.
Persisting cases of more complex, but still nonspecific physical symptoms attributed to specific causes but actually arising from psychogenic illness have been reported since at least the Middle Ages, often emerging in the setting of concerns about new technologies including everything from musical instruments, trains, wind turbines, high-power lines, microwave ovens, fentanyl, and 5G phone networks [for a good review of mass psychogenic illness and its likely cause of “Havana syndrome” see the Slate article, “Cuba’s Sonic Attacks Show Us Just How Susceptible Our Brains Are to Mass Hysteria”].
Dr. Bartholomew has noted that social media may be shifting the “contagion” of psychogenic illness such that related outbreaks can occur well beyond small, isolated groups.9 Something similar has been cited as an explanation for “Morgellons syndrome”—an example of delusional infestation that has become a somewhat popular “internet meme.”10
It’s therefore possible that gang stalking, like “Havana syndrome” and a growing number of similar experiences spreading like a contagion around the world, might represent a variant of psychogenic illness on a much larger scale. Rather than internet affiliation providing helpful support for T.I.s, an increasing amount of online information claiming that gang stalking is real might be causing thousands of people to worry about mass public surveillance, harassment, and being victimized by experiments with high-tech weapons and implanted devices.
Activated by such concerns, people might start to look for evidence of threats in their own personal lives. Some might maintain general concerns at the level of conspiracy theory, while others looking to account for symptoms like hearing voices and physical discomforts might be more susceptible to developing frank paranoia.
With growing alienation, fears about emerging technology, and mistrust in government, it’s not hard to see how gang stalking might fulfill several psychological needs that have been found to be associated with belief in conspiracy theories such as certainty, closure, and uniqueness.11
T.I.s sometimes claim that they’d prefer to be mentally ill than be a victim of real-life gang stalking. But one wonders to what extent that’s really true.
Read Parts 1 and 2 of this series on “gang stalking”:
- Gang Stalking: Real-Life Harassment or Textbook Paranoia?
- Gang Stalking: Conspiracy, Delusion, and Shared Belief
1. Elwood JM. Microwaves in the cold war: the Moscow embassy study and its interpretation. Review of a restrospective cohort study. Environmental Health 2012; 11:85.
2. Swanson II RL, Hampton S, Green-McKenzie J, Diaz-Arrastia R, Grady S, Verma R, Biester R, Duda D, Wolf RL, Smith DH. Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba. JAMA 2018; 319:1125-1133.
3. Verma R, Swanson RL, Parker D, Ismail AAO, Shinohara RT, Alappatt JA, Doshi J, Davatzikos C, Gallaway M, Duda D, Chen I, Kim JJ, Gur RC, Wolf RL, Grady S, Hampton S, Diaz-Arrastia R, Smith DH. Neuroimaging findings in the US government personnel with possible exposure to directional phenomena in Havana, Cuba. JAMA 2019; 322:336-347.
4. Lin JC. Strange reports of weaponized sound in Cuba. IEEE Microwave Magazine 2018; 1:18-19.
5. Golomb BA. Diplomats’ mystery illness and pulsed radiofrequency/microwave radiation. Neural Computation 2018; 30:2882-2985.
6. Stone R. Stressful conditions, not ‘sonic weapon,’ sickened U.S. diplomats, Cuban panel asserts. Science; December 5, 2017. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/stressful-conditions-not-sonic-weapon-sickened-us-diplomats-cuba-panel-asserts
7. Bartholomew RE, Baloh RW. Challenging the diagnosis of ‘Havana Syndrome’ as a novel clinical entity. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2020; 113:7-11.
8. Balaratnasingam S, Janca A. Mass hysteria revisited. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2006; 19:171-174.
9. Bartholomew RE, Wessely S, Rubin GJ. Mass psychogenic illness and the social network: is it changing the pattern of outbreaks? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2012; 105:509-512.
10. Lustig A, Mackay S, Strauss J. Morgellons as internet meme. Psychosomatics 2009; 50:90.
11. Douglas KM, Uscinski JE, Sutton RM, Cichocka A, Nefes T, Ang CS, Deravi F. Understanding conspiracy theories. Political Psychology 2019; 40 (Suppl 1):3-35.