Reconsidering the Havana Syndrome

It can be tricky to tie common physical complaints like fatigue and headaches to a single outside cause. 

Last week the CIA again registered doubts that foreign governments have been attacking American embassy workers with some sort of sonic weapon.  Over the years official views have ranged from certainty that foreign agents were involved to more skepticism.

A little background:  In early 2017 Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis held a classified briefing raising the possibility that American staffers at the Havana embassy were being targeted by a sonic device outside the embassy grounds. Many had real but vague symptoms. Soon after, he took the precaution of asking embassy personnel to sleep in the middle of their rooms and away from windows. Six months later he would order the evacuation of nonessential staff and their families.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and stun guns all leave marks of their effects on flesh or the psyche. But individuals traumatized by sound will exhibit less external evidence that they have been attacked. Yet, as any viewer of science fiction films can attest, it seems plausible that exposure to high frequency energy could inhibit a person’s cognitive capacities. Most disturbing of all, the research done on a selection of Americans and Canadians in Havana suggested at least some damage to the bones of the middle ear and the inner-ear canals that help an individual keep their balance. Several years ago, Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, found these nearly immobilizing effects in 50 embassy staffers. A clear sign that something nefarious was going on?  Perhaps, but it is also true that the middle and inner ears of most adults show wear and tear with age. We are rarely kind to our hearing receptors, doing little to protect them.

What initially gave the syndrome some credibility was a history of past Soviet use of high frequency sonic waves to try an eavesdrop on embassy officials. The idea was to use a tool somewhere near the building that could yield up private conversations, all without notice. This was back in the 1970s.

Even so, the recent CIA conclusion is a caution. As skeptics have pointed out, radio and powerful sonic waves all pose challenges if used as weapons. One convincing problem is that ultra-high frequency sound waves that we cannot hear but might affect someone’s vestibular system will not easily penetrate buildings or dense materials. Low frequency sound waves are a partial exception, which is why you can sometimes hear the thumping bass of a boom box or car stereo even inside a building. But higher auditory frequencies originally considered prime candidates for sonic mischief do not carry well through hard surfaces. That’s not true with radio waves, which might be a reason for concern. For example, standing near a broadcast antenna for a period of time is not wise. It exposes a person to a lot of electromagnetic energy if they are nearby. But a beam of radio waves would likely give away their presence via likely other electronic equipment within the embassy: a red flag not found in the reports of the residents.

There are at least two additional reasons to have doubts about the theory of a foreign attack. One is the surprising fact that local varieties of crickets are very loud. Some residents in Cuba say their 6000 Hz pitch can literally drive you crazy. Imagine doubling the loudness of the cicadas and crickets we heard last August in parts of the northeast. These sound can induce real fatigue in a place like Havana, where people naturally spend more time outside.

Somatic Contagion? 

Then there is an additional but important point that is raised carefully, since it can seem like a dismissal of the victim’s complaints. There is the real social phenomenon of a “collective psychogenic disorder,” where symptoms of one individual begin to trigger perceptions of the same problem in others. This theory of ‘somatic contagion’ applies when a persistent symptom that is mentioned by one individual triggers some of the same sensations in others. It is one reason there are a lot of uninfected people seek COVID-19 tests, because they are more conscious of the widespread discussion of its many flu-like symptoms. In fact, most seeking COVID tests are negative for the virus. They have simply linked high public awareness of its symptoms with the effects of their winter allergies or other common respiratory irritations.

I suspect that the likelihood of a collective psychogenic origin is one reason recent government efforts have turned to developing a formal diagnostic rubric for the syndrome.  It might standardize what is now still a somewhat impressionistic set of symptoms. As some researchers have pointed out, many routine medical anomalies are likely to produce symptoms that can look like those of the Havana syndrome: namely, fatigue, headaches, and nausea.

None of this is to suggest that there are no sonic canons used against others. Sound is weaponized in a variety of ways. For more discussion of this point see Chapter 9 of The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, available in hard copy, or a free download at this site.