Saturday, November 20, 2021

The 3 Best Explanations for the Havana Syndrome

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

In late 2016, United States diplomats working in Cuba began reporting health problems: persistent headaches, vertigo, blurred vision. They were dizzy. They heard sounds coming from nowhere. The affected diplomats were questioned and examined by doctors but the symptoms didn’t fit any known disease. They called it the “Havana Symptom”.

More cases were later reported from China and Russia, Germany and Austria, even from near the White House. A CIA agent in Moscow was allegedly so badly affected that he had to retire. And just a few weeks ago another case made headlines: a CIA officer fell ill during a visit to India. What explanations have doctors put forward for those incidents? What could the Havana Syndrome be? That’s what we’ll talk about today.

Before we talk about sounds from nowhere, I want to briefly thank our supporters on Patreon. Your support makes it so much easier to keep this channel going. Special thanks to our biggest supporters in tier four. We couldn’t do it without you. And too you can help us. Go check out our Patreon page, or support us right here on YouTube by clicking on the “join” button just below this video. Now let’s look at the Havana Syndrome.

The “Havana” Syndrome got its name from the place where it was first reported in 2016. But since then it has appeared in many other countries. For this reason, a spokesperson from the US State Department told Newsweek “We refer to these incidents as “unexplained health incidents” or “UHIs.””

A common report among the affected people is that they hear recurring sounds but can’t identify a source. The Associated Press obtained a recording of what is allegedly one of those mysterious sounds. It was recorded in a private home of a diplomat in Cuba. Here is how that sounds.

Hmm. But not all the affected people in Cuba heard sounds, and it’s not clear that those who *did heard exactly the same thing. Doctors have focused on three different explanations (a) mass hysteria (b) microwaves and (c) ultrasound. We’ll go through these one by one.

(a) mass hysteria

Are those people just imagining they’ve been targeted by some secret weapon and are making themselves ill by worrying about their health? Are they maybe just stressed or bored? Well, in Cuba, the affected diplomats were examined by a military doctor who found most of the patients had suffered inner-ear damage, apparently from an external force. The problem is though that the patients’ health records from before the incident are spotty, so it’s difficult to pinpoint when that damage happened, if it happened.

In the United States, the affected government personnel were also thoroughly examined. Unfortunately, a 2018 paper about their symptoms was widely discredited, but in 2019 a group of neurologists published another paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association and they did find quite compelling evidence for neurological problems among the affected people.

They compared 40 members of the US government who had reported suffering from the Havana Syndrome with 48 control patients with similar demographics, so similar age, gender and educational attainment. They scanned all these people’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging and found the following:

First, no significant difference between groups in the brain gray matter, and no significant difference in the so-called executive control subnetwork, that’s the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning.

But, they did find significant between-group differences for the brain white matter that contains the connective tissue between the neurons. The patients’ volume of white matter was on the average twenty-seven cubic centimeters smaller. That means they’ve lost about five percent of the entire white matter.

This finding that has a p-value of below 0.001. As a reminder, the p-value tells you how statistically significant a finding is. The smaller, the more significant. The typical threshold is 0.05, so this finding meets the criterion of statistical significance.

They also found that patients had a significantly lower mean diffusivity in the connection between two hemispheres of the brain. Just exactly what consequences this has is somewhat unclear, but this difference too has a p-value of below 0.001.

Then there’s a significantly lower mean functional connectivity in the auditory subnetwork that you need for hearing and orientation with a p-value of about 0.003, and a lowered mean functional connectivity in the part of the brain necessary for spatial orientation, with a p-value of 0.002

The lead author of the paper, told the New York Times that this means a wholly psychogenic or psychosomatic cause is very unlikely. In other words, they probably didn’t imagine it.

Case settled? Of course not. A caveat of this study is that the patients had done exercises to improve their physical and cognitive health already before the examination, so the differences to the control group may have been affected by that. However, seeing those p-values I am willing to believe that something strange is going on.

There are other reasons to think that purely psychosomatic reasons don’t explain what’s happened. For example, the first cases in Cuba were treated confidentially and didn’t appear in the news until six months later. And yet there were several different people suddenly seeing doctors for similar symptoms at almost the same time. Those symptoms came on rather suddenly and were reportedly accompanied by strange sounds. The affected people described those sounds as sharp, disorienting, or oddly focused.

Let’s then talk about the second explanation, microwaves.

Microwave troubles in embassies aren’t entirely new. During the cold war, the US embassy in Moscow was permanently radiated by microwaves, presumably by the Soviets. No one knows exactly why, but the speculation is that it was for surveillance or counter-surveillance and not designed to cause health damage.

But in the 1970s the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Walter Stoessel, fell dramatically ill, besides nausea and anemia, one of his symptoms was that his eyes were bleeding. Ugh.

In a now declassified nineteen seventy-five phone call, Henry Kissinger linked Stoessel’s illness to microwaves, admitting “we are trying to keep the thing quiet.” Stoessel died of leukemia at the age of sixty-six, about ten years after he first fell ill.

So, microwaves have been the main suspect because they have history. Could they maybe have caused those mysterious sounds? But how could that possibly be? Microwaves are electromagnetic waves, not sound waves. Certainly our ears don’t detect microwaves.

Well, actually. Let me introduce you to Allan Frey. Frey was an American neuroscientist. In 1960, a radar technician told Frey he could hear microwave pulses. This didn’t make any sense to Frey but he tried it himself and heard it too! He then did a series of experiments in which he exposed people to pulses of microwave radiation at low power, well within the safe regime. He found that not only did they generally hear the pulses, much weirder: deaf people could hear them too. It’s a real thing and is now called the “Frey effect.”

Frey explained that this works as follows. First, the electromagnetic energy from the radiation is absorbed by neural tissue near the surface of the skull. This creates tiny periodic temperature changes. It’s only about five millionths of a degree Celsius but these temperature changes further cause a periodic thermal expansion and contraction of the tissues. And this oscillating tissue creates a pressure wave that propagates and excites the cochlea in the inner ear. This is why we interpret it as a sound.

The frequency of the induced sound, interestingly enough, does not depend on the frequency of the microwaves. It’s a kind of resonance effect and the frequency you hear depends on the acoustic properties of brain tissue and… the size of your head. So, could microwaves lead to mystery sounds? Totally.

Microwave pulses have also been tested as weapons by various nations and are known to cause a variety of symptoms like headaches, dizziness, or nausea. There is also the work of professor James Lin an American electrical engineer who subjected himself to microwaves in his laboratory during the 1970’s. He has written a book on the subject of auditory effects of microwaves and continues publishing papers on the subject. His descriptions match the ones of the people affected by the Havana syndrome quite well.

The authors of the most in detail paper on the cases in Havana also concluded that microwaves were the most likely explanation. And more anecdotally, there’s the report of Beatrice Golomb, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Golomb has long researched the health effects of microwaves and offered help to the diplomats affected in China. She claims that family members of personnel tried to measure if there were microwaves by using commercially available equipment. She told the BBC: “The needle went off the top of the available readings.” Then again one person’s story about how someone else tried to measure something isn’t exactly the most reliable evidence.

Still, microwaves seem plausible. A recent piece in the New York Times claimed that microwave weapons are too large to target people in secret. However, several experts have argued that it’s full well possible to put such a weapon into a van and this way bring it into the vicinity of an embassy. Of course this makes you wonder why the heck someone would want to expose diplomats around the world to microwaves with no particular purpose or outcome.

Let’s then talk about option (c) Ultrasound.

Depending on the intensity, exposure to sound, even if we can’t hear it, can cause temporary discomfort, nausea, or even permanent damage of the eardrum. In some countries, for example the United States and Germany, the police sometimes use sonic weapons to disperse crowds. But last year, the US Academy of Doctors of Audiology released a statement warning that these devices sometimes cause permanent loss of hearing, problems with orientation and balance, tinnitus, and injury to the ear. That doesn’t sound so different from the symptoms of the Havana syndrome.

The advantage of this hypothesis is that there’s a possible answer to the “why” question. In 2018, researchers from the University of Michigan proposed the effects could have been caused by improperly placed Cuban spy gear. If two or more surveillance devices that use ultrasound are placed too closely together, they can interfere and create an audible sound. Then again, if you want to explain all the reported cases that way, you’d need a lot of incompetent spies.

So, well. Let’s hear that recording from the associated press again. Hmm. What does it sound like to you? When Fernando Montealegre heard the sound it reminded him of the crickets he collected as a child. Montealegre is a professor of sensory biology at the University of Lincoln in the UK. Together with a colleague, he searched a database of insect sounds to see if any matched the tape. The researchers found that the recording from Cuba matches perfectly to the call of the Indies short-tailed cricket.

As you see, this is a really difficult story and no one presently has a good explanation for what has happened. Most importantly I think we must keep in mind that there could actually be a number of different reasons for why those people fell ill. While it seems unlikely that the first cases in Cuba spread by mass hysteria, the cases in China only began after those in Cuba had made headlines, so that’s an entirely different situation.

There are also of course a lot of conspiracy theories ranking around the Havana syndrome. Is it a coincidence that the cases in Cuba began right after Trump’s election? It is a coincidence that Fidel Castro died around the same time? Is it a coincidence that only a few weeks later Russia and Cuba signed a defense cooperation agreement? I don’t have any insights into this, but let me know what you think in the comments.

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