An Alternate Theory Explaining Havana Syndrome Illnesses

News & Politics

I’ve been following the investigation into Havana Syndrome since 2016 when the illness first came to the attention of the U.S. government. At that time, the general consensus of opinion was that our diplomats in Havana, where the sickness first manifested itself, were victims of an “attack” by some sort of “sonic waves” by an unknown power.

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Early investigations debunked the “sonic waves” theory, but the idea that our diplomats had come under attack wouldn’t die.

As recently as last month, a “60 Minutes” segment on Havana Syndrome fingered a secretive Russian unit in military intelligence that had been developing a “high-energy beam of microwaves or ultrasound.”

The problem with the attack scenario is that most victims of Havana Syndrome show no brain damage at all. Only about 100 of 1,000 Americans who say they are victims of Havana Syndrome display any significant brain damage.

The other leading explanation is “mass psychogenic illness” or mass hysteria. Robert Baloh and Robert Bartholomew wrote a book called “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria.” 

I wrote when the “mass psychogenic illness theory was first proposed, “Once the illnesses became widely known throughout the government, it set off a feeling of general unease so that any symptoms of any kind for any reason suddenly took on a heightened psychological significance.”

It’s a compelling explanation if you forget the fact that some people suffered brain damage.

“In short, people talked themselves into feeling bad while others enabled the feelings. Baloh points out that there are dozens of instances of this kind of mass psychogenic illness throughout history,” I wrote. 

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Now Scientific American has developed an alternative theory.

Less discussed is that nearly a third fulfilled diagnostic criteria for a condition called persistent postural perceptual dizziness (PPPD). PPPD is a disorder related to abnormal brain function that can be triggered by any cause of dizziness or vertigo, and, like other subtypes of functional neurological disorder, can’t be seen with conventional tests. This condition gives us some unexamined clues about “Havana syndrome.”     

The problem with any explanation for Hanvan Syndrome is that it’s not a “one size fits all” condition. The symptoms are approximately the same but vary widely from person to person. And the lack of brain damage in most victims as well as the presence of brain damage in others makes it nearly impossible to single out one cause for the condition.

There is, however, a plausible relation between pulsed microwave exposure and PPPD that doesn’t involve brain damage: The microwave auditory effect (also called the Frey effect) occurs when pulsed radiofrequency energy directed to the head causes a tiny temperature rise in the skull and brain, which in turn creates a pressure wave that propagates through the head, leading to an unusual audiovestibular sensation that is perceived as sound. One of us who studied this as long ago as the 1970s is on record as saying that the effect is too weak under foreseeable exposure conditions to cause brain damage.

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Perhaps the best explanation would be a combination of psychogenic illness and some kind of auditory disturbance that may or may not be deliberate. If such weapons exist, the adversary might have used our diplomats and intelligence agents as guinea pigs to test the weapon’s effectiveness.

Quite likely some energy weapon programs are developing antipersonnel weapons as well. In 2014, prominent Russian microwave engineers suggested using pulsed microwaves and the Frey effect to attack and cause confusion in Russia’s adversaries. China is known to be developing weapons for “neurostrike,” some of which involve high-powered microwaves. There is a dearth of studies involving possible health effects of high-peak-power microwave pulses, which are likely to be quite different from the comparatively well-studied pulsed microwaves at much lower peak power levels. Such studies are clearly needed, and they should be published in a way that is accessible to experts outside of government.

Naturally, the victims of Havana Syndrome are angry at the government for slow-walking assistance, especially the specialized health care they need. But it appears to be improving under the current leadership.

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