One of the issues I’ll be exploring in my next book is the notion of psychological epidemics. How do certain behaviors go viral, and how do the arcs of such epidemics mirror those of their physiological counterparts? To this point, a lot of my research has focused on incidents of mass hysteria, which are endlessly fascinating and predictably weird. My weekend reading included this 2009 paper about a day-long hysteria epidemic in Bangladesh. Like so many instances of mass hysteria, the illness arose without warning:
Approximately 25 minutes after arriving at the Jaforabad high school on saturday , August 4th, 2007, a student of 8th grade noted ‘feverishlike’ feeling in his classroom; shortly thereafter he experienced vertigo, headache, nausea, burning in body, tingling sensation in limbs and dizziness. Similar symptoms soon developed in several students in his room. As the classroom was being evacuated, more students of different grades reported symptoms, and high grades of the school became panic area. Emergency medical personnel from nearby health complex, naming hathazari, rushed to the school within half an hour. The student who first reported symptoms (index case) and two other students were transported
to the hospital by taxi, in view of other students and teachers. Classes were canceled for the high grade from 6th to tenth grade, and that day, a total 15 learners went to the Headmaster room reported symptoms they believed were associated with exposure at the school; 3 of these learners were admitted to the hospital for observation overnight. The index student was among those hospitalized, but no explanation for his symptoms was found. Over the next two days, the school was examined by the Staff of health department including Consultant of Medicine and Upazilla Health and Family Planning Officer(UHFPO), the Local Education Officer, and state officials of the Upazilla Nirbahi Ofiicer, none of whom could detect a problem.
The authorities never did determine a root cause of the brief epidemic, but they did make one critical observation: every single affected student became ill after seeing another ill student, while no one who failed to witness a victim with their own eyes was stricken. In other words, the “virus” was transmitted by what the paper’s authors term “line of sight.”
This makes me think of the work now being done by Nicholas A. Christakis, well-known for his theories regarding the transmission of obesity and other lifestyle-related ailments along social networks. I wonder now if his model might extend to conditions that have much shorter life cycles, such as hysterical illness, as well as afflictions that are exclusively psychological in nature. In other words, if I witness one of my friends fly into a rage and punch out a window, does this raise the chances that I will do likewise over the next 24 to 48 hours?