What is collective hysteria?

Psychosomatic Effects

Multiple chemical sensitivity is an allergy to many types of common chemicals without explanation.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is an allergy to many types of common chemicals without explanation.
Andy Sotiriou/Getty Images

All of these phenomena -- the placebo and nocebo effects, mass psychogenic disorder -- are results of psychosomatic effects, where the mind influences how people feel. The above experiments show the tremendous power of the mind, which when combined with a stressful, highly controlled and contained environment like that of the boarding school, can cause false symptoms to spread rapidly. In the case of the girls at the boarding school, the situation can become severe, and a sense of panic can surely make the problem worse. Fortunately, it seems the situation was handled well and the girls are recovering, though there’s no word if rules at the boarding school are going to be relaxed, particularly regarding phoning home.

As Dr. Torres Meza told the New York Times, the incident at the boarding school was not the only case of mass psychogenic disorder. In November 2006, sixty girls and teachers at a convent in Liberia began crying out with grief, experiencing seizures, fainting and foaming at the mouth. A doctor later explained the symptoms as mass psychogenic disorder [source: Liberian Observer]. In December 2006, children became sick at a British school after watching a human biology film. More than 30 students and a teaching assistant were taken to a hospital as a result [source: Times Online].

In a truly bizarre case, a story emerged last month in London, in which a woman revealed she’s “allergic to modern living” [source: AllHeadline News]. Debbie Bird claims that she’s allergic to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from computers, microwaves and cellular phones. EMF fields, Bird claims, give her skin rashes and make her eyelids swell. She has made her house an “EMF-free zone” with carbon paint on the walls and covered her windows with protective films. She and her husband even sleep under a silver-plated mosquito net to keep out radio waves.

Debbie Bird’s not the only one of her kind. Many other people suffer from mysterious ailments where they experience genuine symptoms without any discernible cause. These afflictions include multiple chemical sensitivity -- an allergy to many types of common chemicals -- and “sick building syndrome,” in which people become sick from time spent in a building (frequently an office) without any apparent cause.

So what’s the solution to mass psychogenic disorder and other mystery ailments? Do we all just lighten up or tell our brains to leave us alone? There’s no real cure except to get away from the location the illness is associated with and to consult a doctor. (Clearly many of these people are suffering stress based on their environments and the way they’re living their lives.) While much more is yet to be learned, science is making great strides in discovering more about the mind, how it influences health and how certain thought processes occur and affect us. In fact, as we reported a couple of months ago, scientists are even developing methods to read minds! Perhaps that should scare us most of all.

For more information on collective hysteria and related topics, try the links below. 

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More Great Links


  • Harris M.D., Benjamin L. "Mass Sociogenic Illness and the St. Teresa's Convent Scare." Liberian Observer.Dec. 1, 2006. http://www.liberianobserver.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/5205/MASS_SOCIOGENIC_ILLNESS_AND_THE_ST._TERESA %27S_CONVENT_SCARE.html
  • Horsnell, Michael. "Mass hysteria forces evacuation of school." The Times Online. Dec. 8, 2006.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/­article664220.ece
  • Malkin, Elisabeth. "At a School for the Poor, a Mysterious Illness." The New York Times. Apr. 16, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/world/americas/16mexico.html? ex=1334376000&en=f739987572367a4f&ei=5090&partner= rssuserland&emc=rss
  • Manalo, Komfie. "Woman Claims to Have Allergy to Modern Living." All Headline News.Mar. 22, 2007. http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7006823175
  • Reid, Brian. "The Nocebo Effect: Placebo's Evil Twin." The Washington Post. Apr. 30, 2002.http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A2709-2002Apr29
  • Swarzc, Sandy. "Collective Fears." Junkfood Science. Apr. 11, 2007.http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2007/04/collective-fears.html
  • Swarzc, Sandy. "When Fear Spreads." Junkfood Science. Dec. 9, 2006.http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2006/12/when-fear-spreads.html
  • "Indoor Air Facts No. 4." Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/sick_building_factsheet.pdf