Budding tourists often head over to the French capital after being fed images of "gay Paree" from Hollywood movies, Impressionist paintings, and high fashion adverts. When they get off the plane, they’re greeted by gray clouds, graffiti, rude taxi drivers, and homeless kids. It isn’t all Sartre, Chanel, and cigarettes. Like all cities, Paris is a place of extremes. For some this intense juxtaposition is said to be so severe it can result in “Paris Syndrome”.
This phenomenon is only reported in the French capital, more or less only among Japanese tourists. Seemingly out of the blue, the distressed visitors can reportedly experience intense dizziness, sweating, increased heart rate, psychosis, hallucinations, depersonalization, derealization, and delusions of persecution. Supposedly, it's like a vivid and exclusive form of culture shock.
This is certainly intriguing but is there any truth behind it?
"Paris Syndrome" has previously made numerous headlines and was even the subject of a study in the French psychiatric journal Nervure in 2004 led by Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France. Between 1988 to 2004, the study revealed that “63 Japanese patients have been hospitalized in our department, still in acute condition” from the phenomenon. The authors went on to point out the factors which they believed were behind this unusual scenario. Most simply, it’s likely that exhaustion from the long-haul flights, jet lag, and overworking on business trips can provoke stress among visitors.
City livin' ain't easy: A man slumps down on a set of steps in Paris. Elvin/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The new and unknown environment can also further act as a stressor. As mentioned, it’s also said to be associated with a disappointment and antipathy at the new environment. Paris on a rainy day can look and feel a lot different to the movie Amélie and there’s certainly less singing than in An American in Paris. On top of that, the language barrier and juxtaposition of culture can leave visitors feeling isolated and bewildered.
"With regards to Paris Syndrome, it is clear that some people who have travelled long distances may not cope particularly well with both the travel itself and the change in cultural, social and physical environment," Dr Nicolas Geeraert, a psychologist at the University of Essex in the UK, who has carried out extensive research on culture shock among international students, told IFLScience. "It is not inconceivable that such an event may be the trigger or the onset of a previously undetected latent mental disorder.”
However, he stressed "There is an important nuance here. I am skeptical that the travel would cause any mental disorder. Instead, I would imagine the travel could have been the proverbial "last straw" for those few individuals that are reported to have suffered from the Paris Syndrome."
So why did Paris, in particular, get this reputation? Perhaps it's because the French capital is often romanticized as a golden symbol of European culture or because the city lives up to the clichés of an archetypal western metropolis: Fast, cold, gray, impersonal, independent, and hostile to meandering tourists. The cultural clash and expectations are therefore especially heightened.
“The notion that these are Japanese tourists in Paris is not trivial. Japan and France are culturally very different," Geeraert added. "There is a plenty of evidence that adapting to living abroad becomes harder when the 'cultural distance' between the country of origin and the destination country increase.”
Certainly, the clash of culture can be particularly harsh for Japanese tourists in Paris, but the relatively low number of cases of Paris Syndrome reported reaffirms that this is not a mental disorder that indiscriminately swoops down on tourists out of the blue. Paris simply holds some of the stressors for those susceptible to mental health problems. However, so do many other environments.
Waiting for the metro at Bienvenüe Paris. Magdalena Roeseler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Despite the headlines, it appears that Japanese tourists don’t suffer mental health problems significantly more than any other nationalities traveling to the other side of the world. Official statistics on this matter are few and far between, however, as an example, it's estimated the UK's National Health Service spends millions each year on foreign visitors who suffer mental breakdowns on holiday. Hiroaki Ota's study documented just 63 people reporting to suffer these loosely defined symptoms in a space of 16 years, and many had previous struggles with mental health. Considering 600,000 Japanese tourists visit Paris each year, the numbers are not overly significant at all.
Maybe then, there’s also an element of “confirmation bias” behind the phenomenon, especially when the media reports it. This is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to interpret (or ignore) information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs.
The notoriety of the phenomenon has also no doubt been boosted because it sounds mysterious and sensational. After all, it sounds like a low budget B movie, as if some plague-like fog of madness has swept down the Champs-Élysées. The reality is perhaps not so unusual nor surprising.
Of course, it’s important to remember that traveling is not bad for you – quite the opposite. Aside from the panic of lost passports and your poorly planned choice of clothing, travel has the power to broaden the mind and change the way you understand the world.
As Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”