Monday, April 20, 2009

"Crazy Sickness"

The BBC is reporting that a new outbreak of "Grisi Siknis" (Crazy Sickness) amongst the Moskito people of Nicaragua is being studied. After successive stages of mania and delirium, which can be quite violent, the sufferer collapses into a coma-like state. In "Grisis Siknis in Moskito Culture", Philip A. Dennis relates that the disease is "epidemic and contagious in form," a finding supported by recent data. Yet medicine can identify no physical cause. This raises interesting questions about the way involuntary behaviors propagate themselves.

According to the unlikely-named Pablo McDavis of Uraccan University, "We have taken samples of blood from patients while suffering an attack and, in a lab, we can't detect anything. Drugs or injections tend to only increase a patient's aggressiveness. Clinically we can't detect anything. It is like an outbreak. If an attack is not contained quickly, it can spread throughout an entire community."

It is only known to afflict the Moskito. Though it seems to mainly afflict young women, it crosses gender barriers, with sufferers reporting gender-specific hallucinations of a violent, sexual nature in which impressive members of the opposite sex seduce the victim and give them socially unacceptable commands. To say that a culture is unique is redundant, but the ethnic and genetic diversity of the Moskito is unique, presenting a blend of Native Central American, European, Creole African, and Chinese elements. The remoteness and idiosyncrasy of the culture may lead many to write off "Grisi Siknis" as a quirk of a backwards tribe, but that would be culturally chauvinistic.

Though the focus on the cultural specificity of the disease is understandable, it brings to mind other mysterious mass hysterical phenomena, such as St. Vitus's Dance (after the patron saint of dance, adolescents, and dogs.) It is the kind of disease that seems to belong to another time, like King's Evil (scrofula). In our own time it is more likely to inspire modern music than fear of the lord, but in the middle ages it reportedly afflicted groups large enough to collapse the bridges they danced across. Now usually called Sydenham's Chorea, it is recognized as a neurological movement disorder that can follow acute rheumatic fever arising from throat infections caused by streptococcal bacteria. The relationship between the identifiable neurological disorder and its cultural/mass hysterical dimension has yet to be explained.

Among the Saora of the Orissa Province of India, a small number of young adults complain of total-body stinging sensations, display culturally-inapropriate laughter and tears, and are prone to unexplained fainting spells. The elders of the Saora say that powerful spirits of the opposite sex are attempting to seduce the youths. The "cure" is usually a ritual marriage with the spirit. It is reported to bring an end to the complaint, and the erstwhile sufferers often go on to become traditional healers themselves.

But St. Vitus's Dance was not violent, nor are the Saora Spirit Courtships. There are perhaps other relevant parallels with "Running Amok." Most are familiar with the phrase "To Run Amok," but fewer people are aware of its origins in seemingly random acts of frenzied homicidal assault in South East Asia (what was the Dutch East Indies.) It has murky pathological roots, being more akin to the mass murderous rages of our own time, which we associate with mental illness, than to either mass hysteria or contagious disease. Yet, in the descriptions of the frenzy, it brings to mind the "Grisi Siknis" that purportedly caused inhabitants of Moskito villages to chase each other with machetes. According to Phrase Finder, the term was "first alluded to in the 1516 text Barbosa . . . 'There are some of them [the Javanese] who go out into the streets, and kill as many persons as they meet. These are called Amuco.'" There was an underlying cultural code to give it some context, but the salient feature of "Running Amok" seems to have been a certain inexplicability. This sort of behavior seems to propogate itself, but how?
From video to marketing "Viral" is a term that is rapidly losing the glow of its buzzy-ness, but the the concept of Memes, pioneered by F.T. Cloak and popularized by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, only gains in gravity what it loses in a novelty. The book "Connected" by Steven Shaviro exposes the intellectual debts those who trade in cultural viruses owe to Evolutionary Biology. Perhaps study of the transmission of complex involuntary behaviors could lead us to new understanding of both consciousness and culture.

(Thanks to Pro Nova Music for the image and interesting Website)