Bad Science of the Havana Embassy “Sonic Attack”

By Neuroskeptic | April 7, 2018 7:12 am

In late 2016, staff at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, began to report hearing unusual sounds. Over the coming months, some staff were struck down by hearing loss and concussion-like symptoms. The strange sounds were interpreted as the cause, perhaps even reflecting a sonic weapon of an unknown nature.


The story of the ‘Havana embassy attack‘ has been told in detail but, until recently, there were no scientific studies of the event or its aftermath.

That changed on February 15th, when leading medical journal JAMA published a paper entitled Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba. In this article, authors Randel L. Swanson and colleagues studied 21 individuals who had been in the embassy and had suspected exposure to the sonic anomaly.

Swanson et al. concluded that the patients showed a pattern of symptoms including “persistent cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction, as well as sleep impairment and headaches.” A neurological basis for the syndrome was suggested: “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks”, despite never having experienced head trauma. In 14 of the 21 victims, the symptoms were so disabling that they still had not returned to work.

Although the JAMA paper did not attempt to establish the cause of the symptoms seen in the embassy workers, it did not exclude the possibility that some kind of ‘sonic weapon’ was involved.

But now, the JAMA study has come under criticism in a paper published yesterday in the journal Cortex: Alleged “sonic attack” supported by poor neuropsychology, by authors Sergio Della Sala and Roberto Cubelli. (Della Sala is chief Editor of Cortex.)

The thrust of the criticism is a very simple one: most of the ‘cognitive dysfunction’ reported in the JAMA study wasn’t actually dysfunction. Della Sala and Cubelli argue that Swanson et al. relied on a very broad definition of ‘impairment’ that would generate many false positives:

In eTable 2, the authors report as ‘impaired’ any performance below the 40th percentile. They write “Bold highlighting denotes abnormality or <40th percentile” and quote three text manuals, none of which authorizes the use of such high threshold as cut-off.

The use of an arbitrarily high threshold gives rise to numerous false positives. Assessing any group of normal, healthy people with a random battery of tests using such a high threshold would result in several of them performing below the chosen cut-off score in one or another test.

Here’s that eTable 2 from the JAMA paper, which shows cognitive test scores for the 6 patients in whom full neuropsychological testing was performed:


There are 222 cognitive test scores reported here by my count, of which 62 are below the 40th centile. What this means is that 60% of normal healthy adults would score above the 40th centile, while 40% would score below. As Della Sala and Cubelli point out, this is a very liberal threshold of abnormality.

In fact, there is actually less abnormality here than would be expected in healthy people: 62 scores are below 40%, whereas we would expect to see 40% of 222 which is 89 – although, as the scores are not independent, we shouldn’t read too much into this.

Della Sala and Cubelli go on to point out that if Swanson et al. had used the more conventional 5th centile cut-off for abnormality, 3 of the 6 patients would have scored normally on all tests. The other 3 would have showed impairment on a few tests, but with no apparent logical pattern: “the lack of coherence makes it impossible to advance any neuropsychological diagnostic interpretation.”

The authors conclude that

There is no evidence that the people assessed present with any cognitive deficit (to be linked or not with their stay in Cuba). Subjective cognitive symptoms cannot be supported by the reported data. There is no ‘new syndrome’ to contemplate. Hence, the search for its cause is moot…

The condition suffered by the US diplomats in Cuba has been labelled “mysterious” (Rubin, 2018). The real mystery though is how such a poor neuropsychogical report could have passed the scrutiny of expert reviewers in a first class outlet.

In fairness to Swanson et al., we should note that the cognitive test score analysis, criticized by Della Sala and Cubelli, is only one part of the JAMA paper, albeit an important part. The JAMA article also describes self-reported cognitive, mood, and other symptoms, along with ‘objective’ abnormalities in many patients on tests of vision, hearing, and balance and vestibular function.

However, we might note here that these tests are not described as being performed by blinded testers – in other words, the testers may have been predisposed to expect to find abnormalities. Blinded testing, with a control group of individuals who were not exposed to the Havana noise, would have provided much stronger evidence, I think. It’s also notable that neuroimaging revealed no abnormality in the majority of cases, and unspecific, possible abnormality (multiple T2-bright white matter foci) in 3 patients.

Overall, I agree with Della Sala and Cubelli that the JAMA paper is pretty weak. Clearly, something has happened to make these 21 people experience so many unpleasant symptoms, but at present I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that the cause is psychological in nature.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, politics, select, selfreport, Top Posts
  • tim bucky

    something did happen to these people. what is this with the no answer. will someone please field a guess.

    • jrkrideau

      Group (mass) hysteria sounds likely as Neuoskepic points out in the link at the bottom of the page. The reported symptoms were not even consistent from what I read in the media.

    • dannyR

      Guesses are all we can manage from the data at hand. Based on the subjective descriptions and the sudden onset of the same, and that Canadian staff were similarly afflicted, I don’t think the word ‘attack’ would occupy a peripheral station among the hypotheses.

    • Trut Tella

      Maybe the NSA outpost in the basement is getting so large that the structure of the embassy is having a hard time holding up?

  • Leonid Schneider

    What if those diplomats took some very bad drugs bought on the streets of Havanna, for recreational purpose? And when faced a sack for that deed, they thought of an excuse the CIA, State Office and even JAMA would believe?

    • dannyR

      Canadian embassy personnel were also affected.

      • Leonid Schneider

        right, so who bought those drugs, and in whose embassy was the party?

  • dannyR

    Science and Engineering Ethics
    December 2017, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1807–1810
    Are Pseudonyms Ethical in (Science) Publishing? Neuroskeptic as a Case Study

    Author: Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

    • Neuroskeptic


    • Knick Pickrr


  • Uncle Al

    Cuban Embassy
    2630 16th St NW
    Washington, DC 20009

    … Microwave them 24/7.

  • Pingback: Sunday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION()

  • Cjones1

    Could be Zombie (Puffer fish neurotoxin) powder sprinkled about, but considering the reports of strange noises, I wonder if the nearby Cuban residents are victims suffering from neurological damage too!

  • jorod

    Yeah, Havana is a peaceful place; socialist paradise.

  • Ryan P. Long

    It’s mass hysteria. The physical symptoms are very real, but psychosomatic.

  • gwsmith

    The noise was probably dissonant feedback from the deteriorating 1950s covert surveillance system installed in the embassies.

  • timdb

    I read that it has been pretty well established that the interaction of multiple ultra-sonic devices within the embassy (motion detectors for example) were responsible for the sonic disturbances.

  • General Tso

    A ploy to get on disability?

  • Realnoid

    Ever get the feeling that the explanations for what happened to the diplomats in Cuba sound even weirder than the event itself? Mass hysteria? Hah! Bad drugs? Dumb. Lying? Probably not.

    Hate to say it but…I had similar experience via simultaneous multi-frequency sounds that disrupted everything but had no permanent effect that I know of. This was from 2002 – 2010. I tried investigating what was known about sonic technology. The officious looking well footnoted library book on the subject turned out to be a hoax in itself. None of this was ever ascribed to Govn’t, neighbors, space aliens, Russians, mind control or demons. Drugs were never a factor. I thought delusions or auditory hallucinations. Nope. I have no proof which makes it sound like every RW Alex Jones conspiracy troll jamming up comments sections. So if it wasn’t imagination what the hell was it? Unfortunately no Occams Razor logic or DSM default even comes close.

  • sciencereader

    In case you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend that you follow the link to the article in Cortex. It’s hard-hitting, and, in my opinion, convincing.

  • Jim Bo

    My guess: chemical, biological or radiological agents are actual cause. The strange audio was added as a subterfuge.



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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