Ah, those mysterious “attacks” in Cuba. What’s the latest? According to the Miami Herald, it’s not just Canadian and American diplomats that have been falling ill; the newspaper received an email from the US State Department, which confirmed that, since last September, 19 American citizens visiting Cuba have reported experienced symptoms of these “attacks” too.
Ladies and gentlemen, here come the caveats.
Firstly, these 19 cases don’t appear to be medical diagnoses, but self-reported afflictions whose details are unclear. Unlike the American diplomats involved, who have undergone a (fairly secretive) technical examination, these visitors have not. So they could just think they’re suffering from these “attacks” when, in reality, they’re not.
Despite a lot of noise being made about these so-called "attacks", the real extent of the problem – and what may be causing it – is both highly unclear and shrouded in secrecy. Every now and then, claims pop out, normally from diplomatic sources, but at this stage, no firm conclusion can be made.
The symptoms and experiences of the attacks have ranged fairly frequently, but temporary disorientation, hearing loss, headaches, and nausea come up a lot. In some cases, changes to patients’ white matter tracts were observed, although it’s not clear if the changes are uniform across all those affected, or different.
Initially, sonic weapons were blamed for the diplomats’ afflictions. Although a series of potential scientific mechanisms emerged to try to explain what kind of mysterious device could fit the bill, US authorities recently backed away from using terms like “sonic attack.”
Incidentally, Cuban authorities blamed the sounds of these so-called "attacks" – which don’t always appear to make an audible noise, by the way – on crickets and cicadas, which strained credulity a tad. They did, however, fall down on a “collective psychogenic disorder” diagnosis, which are physical disorders caused by emotional stress.
Some US medical experts have also suspected it’s a psychosomatic condition. It may seem odd that something akin to mass hysteria could cause physical changes to the brain, but as several notable researchers have explained, psychological changes can impact the structure of the brain directly.
In a recent commentary, one such mass hysteria expert – medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew – concludes that “claims of an ‘acoustical attack’ in Cuba are unsound,” and adds that “acoustical health scares may resonate because they reflect popular conspiracy theories and prevailing fears such as the distrust of foreign and domestic governments.”
As with anything in life, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Unfortunately, right now, there’s very little concrete evidence available, just claims undergoing analysis by experts up and down the country. Could the most plausible explanation really be mass hysteria? Watch this space.
Update: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing, a senior US official mentioned that 18 Americans visiting Cuba have made similar complaints. It's not clear at this stage if the two stories are talking about the same group.