It would be nice to go back to a simpler time, when the worst sonic disruptions included playing Barry Manilow music to discourage convenience store loitering.
It figures that when human ingenuity and perversity are combined, the gift of hearing can be turned against us. That’s what happens when we use sound technology to attack others. Scare cannons, screeching loudspeakers, flash bombs and deliberately inappropriate music are just some of the forms of sound used to strike out at others.
A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences alleges that someone used sonic guns to beam radio waves into the American embassy in Havana. In early 2017 Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis held a classified briefing raising the possibility that American staffers were being targeted by a sonic device perhaps mounted on a vehicle. 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 nonemergency staff and 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 confirmed at least some damage to the bones of the middle ear, and to 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.
What gives the latest report some credibility is the known history of egregious Russian aggression.
Skeptics who have since studied the Havana Embassy episode argue that there are reasons for doubt about claims of a sonic attack. Their most convincing argument is that ultra-high frequency waves do not easily penetrate buildings or dense materials. I haven’t read the latest report, but it is possible the radio waves they allege may have been in frequency ranges that could penetrate hard surfaces. The difference is in the length of the waves. Low frequency radio waves easily pass through solid materials, as any listener of AM radio can notice. Shorter waves such as those in the FM band are more easily blocked, which is one reason you may lose a station if you drive your car behind a mountain. This blocking also explains why a microwave oven is relatively safe if the door is properly closed.
Alternate theories for the sonic attacks in Havana also can’t be dismissed, though seem implausible to some who have looked at the Havana evidence. 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 August in the northeast. Ultimately, what gives the latest report some credibility is the known history of the Russians to use sonic devices, 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. And, of course, the recent unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine is an urgent reminder that that any outrageous overreach from its rogue government is possible.
We may never be able to fully reconstruct what happened in 2017. But we can now place instruments in sensitive locations to recognize high levels of microwave radiation. Incidentally, that would probably include standing for an extended period under the broadcast antennas on top of the Empire State Building. It would be nice to go back to a simpler time, when the worst sonic disruptions included playing Barry Manilow music to discourage teen loitering in front of convenience stores.
In early 2022 news reports in the New York Times and elsewhere have indicated that recent federal efforts to deal with the syndrome have partly focused on identifying common sets medical and psychological conditions that will allow more comparative study of cases arising from Havana syndrome. Interestingly, there are now similar reports of illness from Americans stationed in Vienna and China, among other locations. The task is to sort out the normal stresses that come with a new foreign assignment from specific cases that center on the initial complaints of headaches, nausea, ringing in the ears, and other conditions.
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.
These symptoms all seem to come from external sources acting the vestibular functions associated with the inner ear. The need for better uniformity of diagnosis arises from the recent Havana Act, which allows for compensation to affected members of the C.I.A., State Department, and related workers on foreign assignment.
See more from The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens