‘Havana Syndrome’ and the Bad Science Behind It

Photo by Nik Shuliahin | Unsplash


Photo by Nik Shuliahin | Unsplash

It reads like a spy novel.  Between late 2016 and 2018, dozens of American and Canadian diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba, reported an array of health issues that coincided with mysterious sounds.


It was called ‘Havana Syndrome’ and its symptoms included headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, confusion, difficulty concentrating and memory problems, insomnia, hearing loss, and brain trauma. The incidents occurred in one of two hotels, an apartment complex, and their homes. U.S. officials attributed these mysterious ailments to “sonic attacks,” while others found the cause to be much less futuristic.


Now, years later, recent reporting has found that roughly 200 U.S. diplomats stationed on every continent except Antarctica have been diagnosed with similar symptoms. CIA Director William Burns has tapped agents to determine the cause of these unexpected health incidents. These latest cases have reignited the debate around this enigmatic condition.


Ghosts of the Cold War

To understand ‘Havana Syndrome,’ you need to start at the beginning. In late November 2016, two US intelligence officers living in Havana began to notice strange high-pitched sounds near their residences at night. On December 30, one of the officers walked into the embassy health clinic complaining of headaches, difficulty hearing, and ear pain. The symptoms were not unlike those seen by physicians every day. But he also made an unusual observation: they coincided with a beam of sound that he thought had been directed at his house.  After the incident was reported to the embassy, officials became aware that two more intelligence officers from the same small field office had reported hearing strange sounds outside their homes the previous month.


A theory soon emerged that the intelligence officers had been harassed by a new weapon.  Prior to their posting, the diplomats sent to Cuba had been briefed on the long history of harassment by Cuban agents and the likelihood that they would be under 24-hour surveillance.  During the Cold War, Cuban operatives were notorious for harassment which included entering their homes, rearranging books and furniture, leaving cigarette butts on kitchen tables, and dumping urine and animal feces on floors.  It was their way of saying, ‘We’re watching.’


Word of the ‘attacks’ spread quickly through the embassy. Canadian Embassy officials were also informed.  By April 2017, US Embassy officials had taken the extreme step of advising its staff to sleep away from windows and in the middle of a room!  Such advisories would have been especially stressful for those with children.


A Classic Set-up for Mass Psychogenic Illness

The ‘placebo effect’ is well-known. When someone is given a substance with no therapeutic value such as a sugar pill, they may feel better through the power of suggestion from changes in brain chemistry and physiology. The opposite reaction is what psychologists refer to as the ‘nocebo effect’ where subjects can think themselves sick by having negative expectations. Symptoms typically reflect the anticipated outcome. Think of mass psychogenic illness as a collective example of the nocebo effect.  Outbreaks typically reflect the exposure scenario. Persons who believe they have consumed tainted food commonly experience stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting, while those who think they have been exposed to toxic gas will report symptoms such as dizziness, eye irritation, and breathing problems.


While a small number of US Embassy staff in Havana began to report symptoms in late 2016, it was only identified as a health issue in February 2017, by members of the incoming Trump Administration who interpreted it as a continuation of Cold War hostilities. US diplomats who were being posted to Havana were warned that they could be the next target and were played recordings of sounds captured by their colleagues in Cuba during ‘attacks.’  One of those recordings was identified by biologist Alexander Stubbs of the University of California as the mating call of the Indies Short-tailed Cricket.


Between late 2016 and 2017, staff in Havana were living in fear of a silent, invisible enemy as they worried that they may be the next victims of a mysterious new weapon. The counseling of future embassy staff created an expectation of illness, and with it, a frame through which future sounds and symptoms were interpreted.


What About the Brain Damage and Hearing Loss?

I know what you’re thinking:  it can’t be psychogenic because white matter tract changes, brain damage, and hearing loss are physical conditions.  Let’s examine these claims.


First, the idea of ‘white matter’ changes. In December 2017, information was leaked to the Associated Press that doctors examining a cohort of embassy patients had found significant white matter tract changes in their brains. Other news outlets followed suit.


Speculation on the mysterious anomalies persisted for nearly a year, then in February 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the study, the results of which were underwhelming. They found “nonspecific white matter changes” in 3 of 21 patients – two were mild, one was moderate.  These findings are what one would expect from a random group of 21 people.  White matter tract changes are common in conditions ranging from migraines and depression to normal aging. Unfortunately, the many speculative media stories leading up to the publication of the study contributed to a widespread public perception that the patients had abnormal white matter changes, when they had not.


Another neurological explanation is the idea of brain damage. A 2019 study in the same journal found brain anomalies in a group of embassy diplomats. Media outlets had a field day.  Coverage by the New York Post was representative, proclaiming: “Cuba ‘Sonic Attacks’ Changed US Diplomats’ Brains, Study Finds.” However, in the ‘Limitations’ section of the study, the authors were forced to admit that the differences were not so significant as to rule out the possibility that they resulted from individual variation. The study was also flawed. For instance, while they found brain anomalies, their significance was unclear.


Similar anomalies can be caused by exposure to long-term stress. Brain changes are not the same as brain damage.  Most significantly, 12 of those affected had histories of concussion, compared to none of the healthy controls. This alone could account for the differences between the two groups.


And lastly, there is the symptom of hearing loss. In 2018, the results of a study on 25 diplomats were leaked to the media and it was claimed that one-third of the patients had suffered hearing loss.  This too made headlines. However, when the study was released that December in an obscure medical journal, it found hearing loss in just two subjects.  In both cases, the loss had occurred before they were posted to Cuba.  When interviewed, the subjects had expressed a belief that they had suffered hearing loss, but when given a standard hearing test, the other 23 returned normal results.


The Floodgates Open

Once the State Department suggested that members of their diplomatic corps in Cuba were being attacked, embassy staff and intelligence officers stationed around the world were on the alert and told to be vigilant for any strange sounds associated with the onset of health complaints.


In sociology, this is known as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.  If people define situations as real, they become real in their consequences. Mysterious ‘energy attacks’ have now been reported by US officials in the United Kingdom, China, Australia, Austria, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Colombia, Poland, Taiwan, Georgia, Russia, and near the White House.  Recently, former diplomats and intelligence officers have come forward to say that they also believe they were the victims of energy attacks as far back as the 1970s.  The problem is, there are an array of medical conditions that can account for these reports.


‘Havana Syndrome’ has become a catch-all category for psychosomatic reactions and everyday ailments, the vast majority of which are seen every day in the offices of general practitioners and neurologists.


A Perfect Storm

The vague nature of the symptoms, the physical limitations of sonic or microwave weapons that are dictated by the laws of physics, and the absence of concrete evidence all point to mass suggestion. State Department officials failed to realize that the involvement of four people from the same workstation is a defining feature of mass psychogenic illness, which is known to follow social networks. Outbreaks commonly begin in small, cohesive units and spread outward, starting with people of higher status.  Those affected belonged to a common work environment and social network who were under extreme stress in a foreign country where they knew they were under constant surveillance.


It is also conspicuous that none of the ‘attacks’ took place at the embassy but in crowded hotels, an apartment complex, and in the homes of those affected. They were also limited to American and Canadian Embassy staff and their families. When the National Academy of Sciences recently studied this case and drew no firm conclusion, they said they could not adequately assess the possibility of psychogenic illness because they did not have any data on how it began and spread. This information was contained in our book which was published more than half a year earlier.


Were diplomats the target of a mysterious new weapon for which there is no concrete evidence and the use of which defies the laws of physics, or were they suffering from a mass suggestion – a well-known condition that has been described in the scientific literature for millennia?  Common sense and the weight of evidence dictates the latter.


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