Mass Hysteria or Microwave Weapons—What's Behind the 'Sonic Attacks' On U.S. Diplomats in Cuba?

Updated | Mass hysteria, microwave weapons and secret sonic attacks sound like plot points in a bad Cold War-themed B-Movie. But one of them could be the key to understanding the mysterious illness that has haunted a group of diplomats since February 2016.

12_13_US Embassy Cuba The American flag flies outside the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, December 12, 2017. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Earlier this year, reports emerged of a stealth “sonic attack” on Americans working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Twenty-four staff members were diagnosed with symptoms including hearing loss, dizziness, and nausea. Some of them blamed their condition on strange noises in their homes and hotel rooms.

Investigations by the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to find any physical evidence for secret sonic weaponry. Yet in October, the Associated Press released recordings of the sounds reportedly heard by embassy staff. The noises, however, were reported only by U.S, and not Cuban, staff.

A group of neurologists recently told the Guardian that mass hysteria could offer a better explanation for the events. The lack of an obvious physical cause and high levels of anxiety reported by embassy staff could account for symptoms, they argued. These neurologists had not interacted with any affected embassy staff.

A third possibility emerged Monday when an article published in IEEE Microwave Magazine suggested the strange symptoms could actually be caused by localized microwave radiation. Such weaponry could directly target individuals while remaining inaudible to others.

So, has Cuba developed some kind of secret and deafening microwave gun? Or is there actually no weapon at all beyond anxiety, overwork, and a vestigial fear of the red star? Each option has its supporters, but the continued dearth of evidence is making the real cause hard to pin down.

Weaponized microwave radiation

12_13_Microwave Dish This NASA antenna picks up microwave radiation signals, among others, at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, November 11, 2015. NASA Kennedy/Florida

In the new study, James Lin, electrical engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, proposed the idea of a microwave radiation pulse weapon. He thinks that the mysterious sounds and symptoms could have been caused by a single microwave pulse to the head.

Microwave radiation is usually undetectable to humans. But when delivered at exactly the right frequency, at exactly the right rate for absorption by the human body and aimed at exactly the right part of the head, a microwave pulse could be heard by an individual target, he wrote.

As microwave energy moves through the brain, it generates a tiny amount of heat. This almost undetectable rise in temperature can “launch an acoustic wave of pressure that travels inside the head to the inner ear,” Lin wrote. This pressure could move the tiny hairs that pick up sound vibrations, causing the targeted individual to hear the pulse as they would any other sound.

The more intense this pulse, the louder it would ring through the ear, causing discomfort, dizziness and nausea. The microwave pulse itself might even cause tissue injuries, Lin writes.

The theory may have some support. Doctors treating the embassy victims have found evidence of brain abnormalities, the Associated Press reports. U.S. officials have no explanation for them, but suspect they may be a symptom of the attack. 

12_13_Diffusion Tensor Brain Diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging may have been used to examine changes in the brains of U.S Embassy staff, neurologists state. NICHD/Flickr

Building a microwave pulse gun, however, is an implausible concept, according to Kenneth Foster, New Scientist reports. “That theory is a real stretch,” the bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania says. “It would require something like a major airport radar transmitter with the subject’s head close to the antenna in its direct beam … I guess it is possible, but not likely.” 

Mass hysteria

Others look to the mind rather than the brain as a source of the problem.

Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist and author of “Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566,” believes that mass hysteria remains the best explanation. He makes this claim in an upcoming Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine commentary.

“Mass hysteria is the rapid spread of illness symptoms for which there is no organic cause,” Bartholomew told Newsweek. “It happens in normal, healthy people—it’s not just ‘all in their heads’ because they do experience symptoms.”

Jon Stone, a neurologist from the University of Edinburgh first consulted for the Guardian article, agrees. “To consider this diagnostic possibility properly you have to strip away its negative connotations. The symptoms experienced in outbreaks of ‘mass hysteria’ are genuine and not faked or imaginary,” he told Newsweek.

Stone argues that the term "mass hysteria" itself sounds sensational and far-fetched. In reality, it is not as uncommon as you might think. He explains: “‘Mass hysteria’ is so laden with negativity, it badly distorts its own case. It suggests shrieking and raving individuals—not hard-working and normal people who mostly get functional disorders in everyday practice.” 

A better, less stigmatizing term, says Stone, is “share functional disorder.” He defines the condition as a genuinely experienced illness, “in which there is some disturbance of bodily functioning which conventional diagnostic techniques fail to register.”

Sound has played a big part in prior episodes of probable "mass hysteria," Bartholomew says. Between 1999 and 2002, a spate of illness in Kokomo, Indiana, was linked to reports of a strange humming sound in the region. The symptoms included headaches, lightheadedness, muscle and joint pain, insomnia, fatigue, nosebleeds, and diarrhea. “Like the ‘sonic attack’ in Cuba, most of these are vague symptoms,” he says. 

The Kokomo City Council paid an environmental firm $100,000 to investigate the sound, but it found no link to symptoms of the “the Kokomo Hum.”

12_13_US Embassy Havana_02 The doors of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, September 29, 2017. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

The strength of the mass hysteria case lies in its independence from an actual weapon. No such weapon has been detected in Cuba, but anxiety was known to be rife among U.S. embassy staff. “These people are all clustered together in a somewhat anxious environment and that is exactly the situation that precipitates something like this,” Mark Hallett, president of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology, told the Guardian.

Once a small group complains of symptoms and strange noises, other people may begin to experience the same thing, a characteristic of mass hysteria. Counseling on a potential “sonic threat,” says Bartholomew, may have caused more U.S. diplomats to become anxious and fall ill.

Individuals can develop shared functional disorders for many reasons, Stone explains. In the Cuban situation, these may appear because of fears of injury from a nonexistent sonic attack, because of the high-pressure situation, or because of some as-yet-unknown physical trigger.

Brain tissue injuries and mass hysteria

But even if the attack was pure imagination, it has still left its mark on the brain. New evidence of tissue injuries in affected embassy staff was recently cited in the New Scientist as a reason to doubt the mass hysteria explanation. However, Stone and his University of Edinburgh colleague Alan Carson, argue this fails to take into account the impact of psychological changes on the structure of the brain itself.

“We often make an artificial and erroneous divide between psychological and neurological,” Carson tells Newsweek. “But all conditions coming from the brain involve some changes in the function and structure of the brain.”

12_13_Taxi Learning to drive a taxi can rewire your brain. Rob Nyugen/Flickr

Everything from learning a new skill to driving a taxi can alter brain structure enough to be detected on a scanner, Carson says. In fact, one in six people show incidental brain changes that would show up on a standard MRI scan. “Both anxiety and depression would, for instance, cause some changes,” he adds.

Doctors could have used a technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to detect these abnormalities, Stone says. “This is still a research technique which we are figuring out how to apply to clinical diagnostic situations. To use this as ‘evidence’ of a brain injury would be premature in my view,” he adds. 

Neither Stone, Carson, Hallett nor Bartholomew have interacted with any individuals from the U.S. embassy in Cuba who experienced the phenomenon, whatever it was.

Weapons of the future?

12_13_Fidel Castro 1978 Fidel Castro, former president of Cuba, speaking in Havana in 1978 at the height of the Cold War Marcelo Montecino/Wikimedia Commons

Bartholomew sees the Embassy staff symptoms as a hangover from the Cold War—the physical manifestation of decades of diplomatic tension. “Each outbreak is couched in a unique social-political backdrop,” he says. “During the Cold War, Cuban agents conducted a series of ongoing actions that have become part of American Intelligence folklore. Agents would enter the homes of diplomats and harass them by rearranging furniture and bookshelves, deflating their tires, and dumping feces on the floor.”

The fear of sonic attacks today, he says, is fueled by these stories and a modern fascination with conspiracy theories.

But Stone cautions against jumping too quickly on the “mass hysteria” bandwagon. “The evidence available to me is so sparse that I would be hesitant to say it is the best explanation,” he says. “However, it is one of the best and certainly deserves serious consideration.”

As for the microwave radiation: whether or not it was the culprit, this stealth technique may be a weapon of the future, says Lin. “I would not be surprised if some military establishment around the world invests or has already been engaged in such a program,” he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted James Lin as 'Jeff Lin.'

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