Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter @KeithKloor.
Last month, a group of Massachusetts residents filed an official complaint claiming that the wind turbine in their town is making them sick. According to the article in the Patriot Ledger, the residents “said they’ve lost sleep and suffered headaches, dizziness and nausea as a result of the turbine’s noise and shadow flicker [flashing caused by shadows from moving turbine blades].” A few weeks later, a story from Wisconsin highlighted similar complaints of health problems associated with wind turbines there.
Anecdotal claims like these are on the rise and not just in the United States. A recent story in the UK’s Daily Mail catalogs a litany of health ailments supposedly caused by wind turbines—everything from memory loss and dizziness to tinnitus and depression.
I expect so. For one thing, the alleged health problem has been adopted by demagogues and parroted on popular climate-skeptic websites. But the bigger problem is that “wind turbine syndrome” is what is known as a “communicated” disease, says Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney. The disease, which has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, “spreads via the nocebo effect by being talked about, and is thereby a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition,” Chapman wrote several months ago in The Conversation.
What Chapman is describing is a phenomenon akin to mass hysteria—an outbreak of apparent health problems that has a psychological rather than physical basis. Such episodes have occurred throughout human history; earlier this year, a cluster of teenagers at an upstate New York high school were suddenly afflicted with Tourette syndrome-like symptoms. The mystery outbreak was attributed by some speculation to environmental contaminants.
But a doctor treating many of the students instead diagnosed them with a psychological condition called “conversion disorder,” as described by psychologist Vaughan Bell on The Crux:
Vaughan Bell is a clinical and research psychologist based at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. He’s also working on a book about hallucinations due to be out in 2013.
Cheerleaders from a small town in New York state have been making headlines because several of them began to display tics and involuntary movements that have been diagnosed as conversion disorder—a situation which has often described in the media as being due to “mass hysteria” or a “mystery illness.” I can’t say for sure whether the diagnosis of conversion disorder is accurate or not because I’ve not been clinically involved with the affected people, and if I had, I couldn’t talk about it due to patient confidentiality, but what I can say is that some of the media reporting of conversion disorder, “hysteria” and its related concepts has been highly confused.
Hysteria is used in everyday language to mean “panic” but it has a long history as a medical condition, originating from Hippocrates who thought that a whole range of symptoms could be caused by the womb “wandering” around the body. As you might expect, it was traditionally thought of as a female disease until the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot shocked the medical world by reporting the first male cases. Although the connection with a wandering womb was comprehensively disproved, doctors were still puzzled by patients who seemed to have neurological disorders without damage to the brain and nervous system. The core definition of hysteria as neurological symptoms without neurological damage remains with us today.
A student of Charcot’s, Sigmund Freud, became curious about the condition and added another element to the definition, which both made his career and became the basis of psychoanalysis itself. As a neurologist, Freud came to believe that mental energy was equivalent to neural energy and, therefore, our mind obeys something akin to the laws of thermodynamics. The first such law says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into another form. This is why Freudian psychology is full of mechanical concepts such as “repression” and “conversion” and the idea that all emotional disturbance must be “processed” or “dealt with” (think: a release valve) or else it will express itself in another form (think: a burst or bulging pipe). Many of the theory’s predictions have been disproved but the theory lives on and, to a great extent, it has become what we unfortunately think of as common sense. Nevertheless, Freud applied the same thinking to hysteria, saying that these seemingly neurological symptoms can appear without neurological damage because the unconscious mind is shutting down the body to prevent us from encountering a deep emotional disturbance. A bit like locking the basement in a rushed attempt to deal with a burst pipe—the problem is easier to ignore but not any less serious.