Mass sociogenic illnesses show us how much we can lack insight on the real causes of our own distress
This article was first published in The Skeptic in October 2021
In the autumn of 1589, nine year old Jane Throckmorton of Warboys in Huntingdonshire “fell into a strange kind of a sickness and distemperature of the body”. She would lie on her back, then “ …her stomach would lift up above the rest of her such that none could press her down flat. Sometimes she would shake one of her legs, sometimes the other. At other times one of her arms would jerk, then the other, then her head”. Witches of Warboys, p13
The situation soon escalated. Jane’s sisters started to suffer in the same way and Jane accused a local woman, Alice Samuel, of witchcraft. “Three of the Throckmorton children were present when Alice Samuel entered … their reaction upon seeing her was instantaneous. They all fell on the ground ‘strangely tormented’ and threw themselves desperately around the room like grounded fish … Their stomachs reached up into the air, their head and heels together backwards, throwing out their arms with great groans, most strangely to be heard, to the great grief of the beholders” Witches of Warboys, p33
Maid-servants then became afflicted. Samuels was ensnared in a maelstrom of histrionic young women, at a place and in an age inclined to believe in the power of witchcraft. After a four-year campaign of harassment, Samuels, her husband and her daughter were hanged. You can sense that the remaining inhabitants of the village looked darkly upon their social superiors, the Throckmorton family, who left the place shortly afterwards. The case of the Witches of Warboys has been cited as one of the critical cases for a receptive learned class, who formulated credulous witch-hunting legislation in the decades that followed.
It is hard not to be repelled by Jane Throckmorton and her sisters when you first read about them. Jane’s first set of fits subsided, only to reoccur when a newborn infant (a cousin) was in the house. A modern mind – one which discounts witchcraft as a mechanism – could wonder whether this was solely morbid attention-seeking coupled with sociopathic lack of empathy for any ensuing distress caused. I think that may be part of it.
But like most things, it’s probably a little more complicated than that.
If you have kept an eye on the news since the pandemic started (a depressing pastime, I’ll grant you) you may have noticed the emergence of ‘Tik Tok Tics’. The social media platform, which is very popular with under twenty-fives hosts videos by people with Tourette’s syndrome; these have helped to demystify and destigmatise their condition and have been very popular with the platform’s users. Videos tagged with #tourettes on Tik Toc have been seen more than three billion times.
Has there been an unintended side-effect?
A BMJ article by Hayman, Liang and Hedderley considers the rise in tic symptoms in young people who are already diagnosed with tic disorders; there is also “a marked increase in presentations of sudden and new onset severe tics and ‘tic-like’ attacks,” (My italics)
These new Tourette’s candidates haven’t developed in the traditional way. For one, they don’t start in the expected age range of 5-7; they are often female (boys are far more usually affected by Tourette’s); and the condition is a “sudden onset of motor and phonic tics of a complex and bizarre nature”.
Hayman, Liang and Hedderley have calculated that the regular referral rate is set to be doubled with these new cases. While the authors acknowledged that some patients would have had a background that would make the development of motor tics unsurprising, the other group “comprises florid, completely new onset tic-like disorder that appears functional in nature.” They accept that there may be undiagnosed predispositions (such as autism spectrum disorder, for example) but that “the precipitating factor [in both categories] … is anxiety (probably in part COVID-19 related)”.
Are Tik Toc Ticks a form of Mass Sociogenic Illness brought on by anxiety during our unusual times?
In ‘Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness’ Bartholomew and Wessely review some of the well-known historical cases of MSI from possessed nuns to convulsing schoolgirls. They conclude that “Mass sociogenic illness mirrors prominent social concerns, changing in relation to context and circumstance.” In other words, any genetic predisposition and/or free-floating anxiety can express itself in the language – the tensions – of the age.
Hayman, Liang and Hedderley looked at the factors that either exacerbate or soothe the new cohort of ‘Tic-ers’. They “show little or no response to the usual medications for tics” so the traditional drugs are not recommended.
But there is “increasing evidence that personal, family and professional anxiety serves to exacerbate and prolong episodes, while clear explanation, reassuring and calm management can reduce or even eliminate occurrences”. So the reaction of older and professional people in the environment is important. Plus the patients’ own peers have an effect: “They report that they gain peer support, recognition and a sense of belonging from this exposure. This attention and support may be inadvertently reinforcing and maintaining symptoms.”
Skeptics are very familiar with this idea: “What a mystery we are to ourselves”
We have all gone to conferences and read articles about the way our cognitive systems deliver us false messages. We know that our minds and bodies aren’t separate, but that they interact.
Yet I suspect many skeptics will surprised to find out that how profound an effect psychological distress can have upon a body – even to the point where complex cognitive constructs like witchcraft and demons get invoked. Bartholomew and Wessley reviewed the putative predispositions to mass sociogenic illness, factors such as paranoia, neuroticism IQ etc., but found no clear picture. In other words, this could happen to many of us.
When we are faced with a strange condition, or a familiar one that begins to occur at an above-average rate, it’s worth remembering the Witches of Warboys and the Tik Toc Ticers. As Bartholomew and Wessley say in their conclusion “A broad understanding of the history of mass sociogenic illness and a knowledge of episode characteristics are useful in the more rapid recognition and treatment of outbreaks”.