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Mass hysteria: Mind over matter?

They say seeing is believing. And this writer witnessed it first-hand, twice – once during a school assembly and then a few years later, in a university dorm.

It was like any other normal Monday morning with students gathering in the assembly hall according to their classes.

Suddenly, a piercing scream rang out from the back of the hall. Seconds later, the noise grew louder as more girls began to scream and some of them also fell to the ground.

In the second incident, it was after dinner time and many of us undergraduates were either studying in our rooms or washing laundry in the common bathroom.

Suddenly, a loud cry permeated the long corridor, making us stop in our tracks. The commotion grew louder by the minute as screaming sounds from more girls were soon heard.

In both cases, the teachers and dorm supervisors recited religious verses and the hysteria eventually stopped.

Today, the phenomenon of mass hysteria continues to be recorded all over the world. It happens in various forms and mostly affects girls, as well as women.

Hysteria is derived from the Greek word for “uterus” and in ancient times, people believed that hysteria occurred because a woman’s womb was moving about in the body. By the 18th century, hysteria was considered a nervous system disorder.

Today, experts and researchers define hysteria as a “mass psychogenic illness” or “collective obsessional behavior”. “Psychogenic illness” can be explained as a condition that begins in the mind rather than the body.

Mass hysteria is also described as a conversion disorder. This means that a person demonstrates physiological symptoms that affect the nervous system without there being a physical cause of illness. Symptoms also seem to appear due to psychological pressure.

In 2016, there were several cases of hysteria in a few schools in the north-eastern state of Kelantan in Peninsular Malaysia, which affected more than 100 students and teachers.

Some students, all female, claimed to have seen a ghostly figure before they went hysterical.

Last year, 39 students were involved in an outbreak of hysteria in another school located in the same state.

In 2012, about a dozen teenagers from a high school in New York displayed tics and were prone to verbal outbursts similar to symptoms of Tourette syndrome. They could not control their shaking movements, some to the point of not being able to speak. The neurologist who treated the girls said it was an incident of mass hysteria.

Although medical sociologist Dr. Robert E. Bartholomew does not think that mass hysteria is caused by supernatural beings, he points out that every society, both eastern and western, has its own beliefs in paranormal realms.

He describes mass hysteria as a psychological phenomenon caused by pre-existing stress and says that that cultural belief plays a role.

He explains that hysteria can be divided into two categories. The first he describes as “anxiety hysteria”, common in the West, which is not linked to any pre-existing stress, but is triggered by say, a strange odor that people think is dangerous to their health. Those affected generally display symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing or fatigue.

Meanwhile, “motor hysteria” tends to occur in other parts of the world with those who experience it developing twitching, shaking and convulsions that affect their motor skills.

Many of those who display motor hysteria claim to have seen paranormal beings or display symptoms of being spiritually possessed.

Whether you think this is all hocus-pocus or that it’s a case of mind over matter, incidents of mass hysteria are very real and have been happening throughout the centuries, all over the world.

Sometimes, it’s ok to accept that scientific and medical advancements do not have all the answers.

Author: Elle Wong (act)



19.01.2019 | 14:32