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"Sonic Attack" Not Mass Hysteria, Says Top Doc—He's Wrong!

I'll stake my career on it

As a specialist on mass psychogenic illness who has spent the last 25 years studying this topic, the head physician for the U.S. State Department has gotten it wrong—very wrong. I will stake my career on this. You can take it to the bank, and mortgage your house, car, and the family pet.

I read in stunned disbelief a transcript of the testimony by State Department Medical Director Dr. Charles Rosenfarb to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 9, 2018, as he all but ruled out "mass hysteria" as a cause of the strange illness that has sickened 24 U.S. Embassy staff in Havana, Cuba. "The findings suggest that this is not a case of mass hysteria," he said. His use of the term "mass hysteria" was dismissive. In fact, when Committee Chair Marco Rubio asked him about this possibility, it was done so in a very patronizing manner. Here is how Mr. Rubio asked it: "Dr. there any thought given to the fact that this is a case of mass hysteria. That a bunch of people are just being hypocondriacs and making it up." Wow. What a loaded question meant to ridicule the possibility of a psychological cause, and implying that all victims of mass psychogenic illness are hypocondriacs and making it up! A more balanced and professional response would have been to have substituted the terms 'mass psychogenic illness' or 'collective stress response' instead of the emotionally-charged 'mass hysteria.' However, this exchange tells you everything you need to know about the Hearing: three hand-picked people with no dissenting views.

Rosenfarb made several assertions which exhibit an alarming lack of familiarity with the basics of psychosomatic medicine, testifying that he does not believe it is a case of "mass hysteria" (his words, not mine) in part because of the array of symptoms. But complaints such as fatigue, headaches, memory and concentration difficulties, dizziness, and partial hearing loss are common in the psychogenic literature. There are many parallel cases in the scientific literature that are similar to what happened in Cuba including reports involving alteration in hearing function coupled with strange sensations and sounds such as a psychogenic outbreak at a nursing school in 1974, which affected two dozen students.

His claim that white matter track changes in the brain and "mild brain trauma," cannot explain a psychogenic hypothesis, is correct, but these symptoms are not linked to acoustical weapons. The main symptoms of acoustical weapons—as ineffective as they are—are nausea, anxiety, and irritability. It would violate the laws of physics for an acoustical device to cause brain damage. There is not even a plausible pathway for this to occur.

The only reason why officials initially thought a "sonic attack" was responsible appears to have been the reports of sounds and sensations accompanying the symptoms. This began in a small initial group. Other staff were then counseled to be on the alert for it, inducing the spread of symptoms in persons who were now on the lookout for anomalous sounds and symptoms.

Rosenfarb writes that among the descriptions were “a high pitched beam of sound,” and a “'baffling sensation' akin to driving with windows partially down...” These are very vague and sound more like tinnitus and ambiguous somatic complaints than a sonic attack. They have heard hoof beats in the night and assumed the existence of zebras when they are dealing with horses. Let’s not forget that these attacks were not at the Embassy but in two nearby hotels and at the homes of Embassy staff. These staff, while part of a close-knit group, were spread out all over the place when they were supposedly targeted, often in close proximity to other people, yet others were not affected. Whatever this is, it is not a sonic attack, and if they have gotten this fundamental aspect of the investigation wrong—making claims of an acoustical attack without sufficient evidence—where else have they erred?

Red flag. Once the initial cluster of symptoms appeared and those affected noted sounds accompanying their symptoms, there was an immediate assumption that the most likely cause was an acoustical weapon and a specialist in acoustical attacks was consulted. This is very telling. With only an array of vague symptoms to go on, most of which have no association with acoustical waves, they have gone for the more exotic hypothesis. Why assume the cause is some type of sonic weapon, especially given that the majority of symptoms are not associated with sonic weapons, including the two most dramatic symptoms that get all the headlines: mild brain trauma and white matter track changes in the brain. It cannot be overstated: There has never been any study showing that infrasound or ultrasound can cause changes to white matter tracks, while acoustical waves cannot cause brain trauma.

After reading Rosenfarb’s statement, I am convinced that we are dealing with an episode of mass psychogenic illness and mass suggestion triggered by lingering Cold War paranoia. If these same symptoms were reported among a group of factory workers in New York or London, I think you would get a very different diagnosis, and there would be no consideration to a sonic weapon hypothesis. The initial assumption is key in driving the diagnosis. You also may have another factor at work here: government officials trying to defend their initial diagnosis.

In his three-page statement, Rosenfarb writes: “Mission personnel describe a multitude of symptoms, many of which are not easily quantifiable and not easily attributable to a specific cause. The sharing of information that occurs in a small, tight-knit community has helped identify more affected personnel, but, as typically is the case with any community outbreak, also can complicate an epidemiological investigation. However, the most challenging factor is the lack of certainty about the causative agent and, therefore, the precise mechanism of the injuries suffered.”

This statement is strongly suggestive of mass psychogenic illness. An outbreak of an array of ambiguous symptoms within a close-knit community under stress in a foreign country that has a long history of harassing American Embassy staff. What about white matter track changes and mild concussions? What caused them? White matter track changes are common in a variety of conditions including depression. Scans are not an objective given but are open to interpretation.

Science has a long history of people seeing what they expect or want to see in order to support their initial suspicions. This is just the latest example.


Bartholomew, Robert E. (2017). “Politics, Scapegoating and Mass Psychogenic Illness: Claims of an ‘Acoustical Attack’ in Cuba are Unsound.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 110(12): 474-475 (December).

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