What’s Causing ‘Havana Syndrome,’ Really?

, What’s Causing ‘Havana Syndrome,’ Really?, The Habari News New York
, What’s Causing ‘Havana Syndrome,’ Really?, The Habari News New York

Cheryl Royfer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has taken a similar view. “The evidence for microwave effects of the type categorized as Havana syndrome is exceedingly weak,” she wrote in Foreign Policy. “No proponent of the idea has outlined how the weapon would actually work. No evidence has been offered that such a weapon has been developed by any nation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

So what might have caused the “Havana syndrome” brain damage, if not sound or light? That turns out to be something of a trick question, Dan Hurley reported for The Times in 2019: Many neurologists and psychologists assert that the JAMA paper provided no convincing evidence of any brain damage at all.

  • The diagnosis was based on the diplomats’ symptoms and their performances on tests of balance, hearing, memory and eye movement. But most of those test results — almost none of which are strictly objective, critics say — were within the range of normal; the threshold for impairment had simply been set “inexplicably high.”

  • When Robert Baloh, an emeritus professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, was given the JAMA manuscript for peer review, he recommended rejection and described its claims as “more like science fiction than science.”

  • A second JAMA study from 2019 that employed neuroimaging technology found no evidence of injury, only “differences” between the brain scans of 40 embassy workers in Cuba and healthy controls. Even those differences, some brain scientists say, are not evidence of any abnormality and could be easily explained by random variation.

Many scientists say that the “Havana syndrome” is much more likely a mass psychogenic illness, a phenomenon whereby people become sick because they think they have been exposed to a health threat. The exposure as imagined isn’t real, but the symptoms — and the suffering — very much are, the result of changes in brain chemistry and neural connections that can last for years.

“Such illnesses have occurred for centuries and continue to occur on a regular basis around the world,” says Baloh, who co-wrote a book on the topic. “For example, as telephones became widely available at the turn of the 20th century, numerous telephone operators became sick with concussion-like symptoms attributed to ‘acoustic shock.’”

Once called mass hysteria, mass psychogenic illnesses are now also called functional illnesses because they trouble the conventional medical dichotomy between the brain and the mind. “I wince when I hear the word ‘psychogenic,’” Jon Stone, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, told Hurley. “It creates a false impression about what these disorders are. They’re like depression or migraine. They happen in that gray area where the mind and the brain intersect.”

, What’s Causing ‘Havana Syndrome,’ Really?, The Habari News New York

Months after the first JAMA paper was published, Stone co-wrote a letter to the editor critiquing its dismissal of functional illness as a potential explanation. “In many functional neurological disorders, initial sensory discomfort together with anxiety and heightened attention trigger maladaptive processes that lead to persistent symptoms,” the letter stated. “Although diagnostic caution is warranted, functional neurological disorders are common genuine disorders that can affect anyone, including hardworking diplomatic staff.”

[“Evidence Mounts that Mass Suggestion Caused ‘Havana Syndrome’”]

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that U.S. officials were victims of “targeted attacks,” much less of secret microwave weapons deployed by a foreign power, many intelligence officials and journalists seem increasingly convinced of the narrative. The latest big story on the “Havana syndrome,” published in the media outlet Puck News, led with the following admission from the author, the national security reporter Julia Ioffe: “I always suspected that these illnesses were the product of deliberate attacks and that the Russian government was behind them — it was exactly the kind of weird thing they’d be both into and capable of.”

Americans should be wary of how the “Havana syndrome” is being framed in this way as a warrant for retaliatory action, Natalie Shure argues in The New Republic.

  • In May, she notes, former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller referred to the “Havana syndrome” as an “act of war.”

  • More recently, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has reportedly begun marking up a bill calling for sanctions against whoever “directed or carried out the Havana Syndrome attacks.”

  • This month, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida accused skeptics of the targeted microwave attack theory like Baloh of being “influence agents” paid by foreign powers.