Tag Archives: Somatic contagion

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My Havana Moment

The frequency was perhaps around 30 Hertz. Even though it was at the threshold of audibility, It blocked my ability to absorb other sounds, suggesting that it originated from a source with a lot of energy. 

The Havana Syndrome has been in the news lately. 60 Minutes recently concluded that it was a real thing, probably a Russian “black op” attempt to disrupt life within America’s Havana Embassy. And just a few weeks ago a long-term federal study concluded the opposite, noting that researchers could find no hard evidence of an invasive “sonic gun” affecting workers in Cuba and, more recently, in other world capitals.

A recent post here suggested that the Feds are probably right. The likely root causes of ear and balance issues may be all the accumulated and unnoticed ear damage that can give us all symptoms of the syndrome: dizziness, nausea, persistent ringing in the ears, and even damage to bones in the middle ear. It turns out that many of us have routinely subjected our ears to physical and auditory abuse: a cause of hearing loss now common in middle aged and older adults. In addition, add in this complication: the more the syndrome is discussed the more it is likely that people sharing the same office may connect with the idea. When that happens it is sometimes called “somatic contagion.” Similar effects are attributed to maladies frequently seen within a community.

But a small but revealing event last week gave me pause. For two short periods I seemed to be bombarded by infrasound–very low frequency sound–below what we would expect to hear in most environments.  To be sure, how we process moving air moving at slow frequencies is a tricky threshold. Slow vibrations are generally felt by the body. But a somewhat higher rate of vibrations come to us as sound.

Was my experience a case of somatic contagion?

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As has been the pattern for this site, all things sound related are fair game. Sound and noise are everywhere, but sometimes hard to isolate against the clutter of other environmental variables. My simple experience was puzzling and unnerving. I spent a typical afternoon tackling revisions on future posts to this site. The room I work in is quiet and long. I’ll explain why that is important in a minute. It is also below ground on three sides and open to some woods on the fourth.  At about 2:00 in the afternoon a unusual sensation enveloped me. Steady and penetrating, a low rumble seemed to momentarily block the rest of the ambient noise in the space. To be sure, disruptive sounds are not so unusual. Construction trucks and a nearby four lane bridge can create rumbles of sound. But this was different. The pitch was steady, and continuous for perhaps two separate 45 second intervals. Even though it was not loud, It blocked my ability to absorb other sounds, suggesting that it originated from a source with a lot of energy. The frequency was perhaps around 30 Hz. This would be near or below the kind of tone we might hear from a deep 32-foot pipe on an organ, and a bit below my hearing threshold.  But it was more like what a body-piercing sound might be pumped into the soundtrack of a horror movie. It’s pitch was constant, but it was not musical. And to my surprise, it began to make me queasy. Not a typical response for me. I tried to put it out of my mind, pausing to think of where I could go to get away from it. But my increasingly nauseated self knew that low frequencies travel far and are not easily stopped. I was relieved when it finally did.

Normally I am fascinated with sound but annoyed with noise. The difference I believe is in whether a tone is coherent or a set of random frequencies. The difference is between middle “C” on a piano at 261 Hz, or cycles per second, versus the sound of utensils bouncing around a drawer at no discernible harmonic patterns.

I wondered about the causes. Was this my own experience a version of somatic contagion?  Having previously written about the topic, was I mostly imagining it? Or could it be my neighbor’s stereo and his subwoofer, with overtones that leave a muddy rumble on my side of our common wall? Or perhaps we were having yet another earthquake aftershock. That surprising event a few weeks ago rolled through our neighborhood of townhomes like an express train. Trucks on a nearby highway also produce noise stripped of all but low rumbles from straining engines. One last thought:  perhaps a furnace or water heater in the adjoining room was emitting an overtone that matched the resonance of my work space. As I noted in an early study, every space “wants’ to hear a particular pitch known as its “modal” resonance. And, though the dynamics of this process can get complex, long spaces can sometimes accentuate low frequency sounds  especially near walls.

Here’s the point. This all would have passed by without much more than annoyance had I not just rewritten a recent blog piece on the Havana Syndrome. But having experienced something that could be imagined as a “sonic gun,” I had a sense of what sufferers with longer and more severe symptoms might have experienced. Noise is often auditory garbage. It is only when we remind ourselves of its ubiquitousness do we become interested in sorting out its sources.

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New Data on the Havana Syndrome

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It all started when diplomats who were posted to the American Embassy in Havana alleged that someone was targeting them with sonic waves.

This site has taken a continuing interest in the fact-finding that has occurred since 2017 trying to identify the sources of illness in the staff at the embassy in Havana Cuba. Noise pollution is one of our ongoing and poorly understood problems. The events in Havana are an especially intriguing case that has baffled government officials and researchers.

This all started when diplomats posted to Havana alleged that someone used sonic guns to beam radio waves into the American embassy. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis held a classified briefing seven years ago raising the possibility that American staffers were being targeted by a sonic device perhaps mounted on a vehicle. Many had real but vague symptoms often mimicking the effects of inner ear infections. He took the precaution of asking embassy personnel to sleep in the middle of their rooms and away from windows. Six months later he ordered the evacuation of nonemergency staff and families.


Tear gas, rubber bullets and stun guns all leave  their marks on flesh or the psyche. But individuals traumatized by sound will show 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 later, Canadians, Austrians and others, asserted that there was at least some damage to the bones of the middle ear, as well as 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 some of the 50 embassy staffers, again suggesting the potential for near total incapacitation.  A Penn study also reached a similar conclusion.

What gives all of these concerns some credibility is the known history of the Russians to use sonic devices (electronic or acoustic) a pattern first noticed when the American Embassy in Moscow experienced high energy waves beamed at the building in the 1970s. But that was primarily for eavesdropping, not trying to inflict brain or nerve damage. But why not “sonic guns” as well deployed in a Russian client state? Numerous assassinations in other countries and the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine are reminders of the Kremlin’s outrageous overreach.

Skeptics who have since studied the Havana Embassy episode argue that there are reasons for doubt about claims of the alleged sonic attack. Their most convincing argument is that ultra-high frequency sound waves do not easily penetrate buildings or dense materials. While some microwave (or radio) waves can pass through solid surfaces, they, too, can be blocked using the right materials.

Other theories for the sonic attacks in Havana are iffy, but can’t be dismissed. One is that local 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 hear in late summer in the United States.

In early 2022 news reports in the New York Times and elsewhere indicated that federal efforts to explain the Havana syndrome focused on identifying common sets of medical and psychological conditions that would allow more comparative study of cases arising from high stress settings. Interestingly, there were similar reports of illness from Americans stationed in Austria and China, among other locations. The task was to sort out the normal stresses that come with a new foreign assignment from specific cases centered on complaints of headaches, nausea, ringing in the ears, and other conditions.

And now we have a new study. This month The National Institutes of Health issued a report noting that they failed to find solid evidence for sonic attacks in any capital. While they did not dismiss the possibility of foreign agents seeking to disrupt workers in a building, they concluded that the symptoms of the victims closely mirrored the common effects of workplace stress. That conclusion, of course, is mostly rejected by the attorneys of the those who were afflicted. Some claim that the “no evidence” conclusion is a government coverup. Others offer the novel view that the “no evidence” conclusion about sonic invasions is not proof. As one attorney noted, the NIH was trying to claim that “the absence of evidence is evidence. And it is not.” (NYT, March 19, 2024).

But the attorney is in error. The absence of evidence in an area where you expect to find it is evidence of a sort; it is called negative evidence. And it can be a valid form of proof to assist in reaching a conclusion that a presumed cause is simply not present.

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 Somatic Contagion?

It makes no sense to dismiss a victim’s complaints. But there is another explanation in 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 is a natural social phenomenon. It is one reason there are a lot of uninfected people seeking COVID-19 tests when they are more conscious of the widespread discussion of symptoms and cases around them. In fact, most seeking COVID tests get negative results for the virus. They have simply linked high public awareness of its symptoms with the effects of their winter allergies or 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 an impressionistic set of symptoms. As researchers have pointed out, many routine medical anomalies are likely to produce symptoms that can look like those of the Havana syndrome.  What about middle ear bone damage (otosclerosis)?  It is actually not that rare.  We are sometimes unbelievably hard on our ears.

The need for better uniformity of diagnosis arises from the recent Havana Act, which allows for compensation to members of the C.I.A., State Department, or others who become sick while on foreign assignment. While there may be no sonic guns at work in these instances, it is undoubtedly a stress on embassy staff to function in a hostile country.

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