Culture-Bound Syndromes Run Amok

A recent Slate article by Jesse Bering outlines the strange and true world of culture-bound syndromes — mental illnesses that occur in certain geo-specific populations or “sociocultural milieus.”  Perhaps the most famous is “amok,” the root of “run amok,” and a problem in Malaysia, Polynesia, Puerto Rico and the Navajo Nation.  The syndrome affects males 20–45, who become homicidally violent after a perceived insult. After which, of course, the subject remembers very little.  Sound like a good cover?  It gets weirder.

In China, we find Koro: in which the patient is convinced that protruding bodily organs, such as the male genitalia or female nipples, are retracting or disappearing into his or her body.” Koro, however, has a habit of jumping all over the globe, and has been well documented in Thailand, India and Africa. Koro’s internationalism, like that of other culture-bound diseases, throws the specificity of “culture” into question, and the genre of these illnesses remains murky, nearly impossible to define, and fertile ground for wild postulating. Mythology in particular permeates the “culture-bound” discussion. Perhaps it is the particular oral traditions of a people who jump beyond the campfire into the lives – and bodies – of their listeners.


And as for what America has to add? Muscle dysmorphia! Bering writes: “The condition is limited to Western males, who suffer the delusion that they are insufficiently ripped.”  Citing a recent article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry by Gen Kanayama and Harrison Pope, Bering ties together the American male body, and the American male hero:

Unlike hypermasculine Western heroes such as Hercules, Thor, and the chiseled Arnold of yesteryear, the Japanese and Chinese have tended to prefer their heroes fully clothed, mentally acute, and lithe, argue Kanayama and Pope. In fact, they say anabolic steroid use is virtually nonexistent in Asian countries, even though the drugs are considerably easier to obtain, being available without a prescription at most neighborhood drugstores.”


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  1. Joe Westhead says:

    How about Japanese tourists suffering “Paris Syndrome”?

    “Paris syndrome is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some people visiting or vacationing in Paris and more generally France and Spain…

    Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible…From the estimated six million yearly visitors, the number of reported cases is significant: according to an administrator at the Japanese embassy in France, around twenty Japanese tourists a year are affected by the syndrome. The susceptilibity of Japanese people may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image of Paris prevalent in Japanese advertising, which does not correspond to reality.”


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    • Ian Tindale says:

      Don’t forget the China Syndrome.

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    • Naomi says:

      Paris Syndrome? i am sorry but that has got to be the DUMBEST thing I ever heard. But just in case, I wikipedia’d the “symptoms”.
      Paris Syndrome is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, etc.[5]

      In fact, the observed clinical picture is quite variable, but it has the characteristic of occurring during trips which confront travellers with things they have not previously experienced and had not anticipated. Principal to the diagnosis is that the experienced symptoms did not exist before the trip and disappear following a return to the sufferer’s familiar surroundings”

      Let me say this, they are not imagining ANY of those symptoms and it’s not suprise they feel better when they leave. Having lived in Paris, Parisians treat foreigners like sh#t. They are also openly prejudiced. You NEVER have to wonder if they are treating you bad because of your race or where you come from. They’ll tell you!

      I personally witnessed a group of Asian (maybe Japanese) tourists who were visiting the Louvre. There was some mix up at the turn styles and the security person was SO RUDE to them. Once they finally made it through, within earshot of these people, she said, in French, something to the effect, “Stupid Asians” to someone next to her and rolled her eyes.

      And they get REALLY pissed if you butcher their language and I imagine that Japanese peope have a fairly difficult time with that damned accent. The person you are talking to will KNOW what you are trying to say and pretend not to. And they are TOTALLY paranoid about their English speaking ability so if you don’t quite get something they said, they WILL make you feel like it’s your fault for speaking a barbaric language, anyway.

      Oh and by the way, there are DSK-type sexist jerks everywhere and they love making passes at little black girls (take it from me). I was 22 0r 23 when I lived there. Never met so many dirty old men.

      I’ll never go back…

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  2. AaronS says:

    It gets sicker in the muscle dysmorphia world of body building. In fact, the MORE repugnant and sickening a muscle head looks to normal folks, the more satisfaction they take.

    I’ve heard–no lie–of body builders who put tampons up their tail to keep from blowing their guts or feces out their backsides due to the tremendous strain the place on their bodies when doing squats, etc.

    I finally concluded that there was some sort of mental illness going on. But I attribute it more to being part of a small, weird community. I’m not talking about body sculpting. I’m talking about the guys who can’t hardly touch their heads because of the muscles in their arms, of guys who dress in bikinis and compete in body building…OK, wait, I was wrong, that is actually women, apparently.

    You and I would say, “Oh, man, that is sick!” The aspiring body-builder will say, “Oh, yeah! Dude, that is awesomely sick!” They live on steroids. They aren’t bad people…but when it comes to their bodies, they have lost touch with reality.

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    • BrianW says:

      As a bodybuilding economist, I will certainly agree that the bodybuilding world is a “small, weird community.” However, the stereotyping of bodybuilders as steroid-induced freaks who only care about the gym is unfortunate. The natural (drug-free) bodybuilding movement has made tremendous strides in the past 10 years. In these organizations, a typical stage weight is 170 lbs, pretty scrawny compared to the 270 lbs on the Olympia stage.

      Being a successful competitive bodybuilder requires a level of commitment and motivation similar to what is required in other ‘extreme’ sports such as endurance bicycle racing or marathons. Lots of people might consider running 26.2 miles at one time “sick.” There is little money in the natural organizations, so ALL competitors have real-world jobs and are relatively well-adjusted. Some of us even publish peer-reviewed articles and teach college classes.

      I push myself hard to be the best that I can in my chosen hobby (bodybuilding), and I always want to improve. However, I don’t think I suffer from muscle dysmorphia, and I don’t think I’m out of touch with reality either.

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  3. Miley Cyrax says:

    When it comes to Western males and muscles, it’s an arms-race (pun noted). If all young males are jacked, you have to be jacked as well or be at a disadvantage when it comes to garnering female attraction.

    Being significantly more muscular and athletic-looking than the local men is a huge advantage as an American traveling abroad, looking to sample the local “cuisine.”

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  4. Eric M Jones says:

    How about Harley-Davidson-o-philia syndrome? You don’t actually need a motorcycle, just the leather jacket and some helmet-but-not-a-helmet will get you laid in most bars.

    How about tattoed contrameritocratic syndrome? Why is it that badasses have all the fun?

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  5. frankenduf says:

    eating disorders

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  6. Brian Salerni says:

    There’s also Ghost Sickness which is found in Native American Cultures. The person believes that dead ancestors are the reason they are getting sick.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    I think there are thousands of such cultural syndromes. E.g.:

    I have known many guys whose sexual preferences were frozen at some early age, and now can’t possibly appreciate (e.g.) the sexuality of women in their 40’s-50’s-60’s (e.g.). This has always struck me as sad. These guys want their school cheerleader girlfriend….

    I have known women with the same syndrome. They consider a guy as attractive with numerous grave faults as long as he has a full head of hair (e.g.). It took me a while to figure this out.

    Another: I saw a psychiatrist at a wedding who looked as much as it was possible like Sigmund Freud; down to the pipe, beard and wire-rimmed glasses. I’ll bet he stood in front of a mirror und practiced hiss Austrian accent at night. “Und now, what zzzzeems to be ze problem, hmmmmm?”

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    • AaronS says:

      Eric, I totally agree with the frozen preferences in women. I have friends who, in their 60s, still pine away for some young thing that would bore them crazy outside the bedroom.

      I also have noticed that some men who married early on, later divorcing, have frozen notions of dating. I’ve seen 50+ year-old men still playing the little “games” that we played as teens. That is, they matured…but their understanding of attracting women did not.

      Speaking of the psychiatrist, there is a whole “professor-thing” that goes on with many professors. It’s almost pretentiously unpretentious in some cases…and unpretentiously pretentious in others. I can’t really pinpoint it precisely, but you can almost always tell a professor from, say, a tax collector, etc.

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    • Miley Cyrax says:

      Eric and Aaron S,

      If you both know so many men like that, have you stopped to consider that perhaps the male sexual fondness for females at their peak fertility is a normal instinctual thing?

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  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    And let’s not forget “Shrinking-Bird Disease”.

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