Syndromes related to a cultural emphasis on learnt dissociation Latahtype reactions

In recent years latah reactions have been cited by cultural relativists as a paradigm of culturally conditioned behaviour (18> and by biopsychological universalists as cultural elaborations of the neurophysiological startle reflex. (19> Latah reactions have impressed famous neuropsychiatrists who interpreted them according to the focus of their research—Gilles de la Tourette(2°) as a variant of his neurological syndrome and Kretschmer(21) as a phylogenetic mechanism. The complete latah syndrome consists of an exaggerated startle response to stimuli that are individually and culturally specific, often triggered by unexpected visual or acoustic perceptions, improper words, touching, or tickling, which causes sudden involuntary movements and inarticulate, often coprolalic, utterances; the latah-afflicted person instantly enters a transient dissociative state in which echopraxia and echolalia are manifested, as are hypersuggestibility and often command obedience. (2) Because of the characteristic echo symptoms, latah reactions are known in French psychiatry as nevroses d'imitaton. However, automatic imitation behaviour has also repeatedly been observed in absolutely normal indigenous people during their first contact with Europeans, as reported in 1845 by Darwin (22) from Tierra del Fuego and more recently from remote areas of Melanesia(23> and East Africa.2.» The typical latah syndrome occurs mostly in females over two geographical zones of epidemiological distribution. (25>

1. Southeast Asian zone: Malaysia, Indonesia (latah, 'nervous, ticklish'), Thailand (bah-tschi, 'tickle-crazy'), Burma (Myanmar) (yaun, 'ticklish'), and the Philippines (.mali-mali).

2. North Eurasian zone: Ainu people of Hokkaido and Sakhalin (imu, 'startle'), aboriginal peoples of Mongolia and Siberia (Russian, miryachit), and in the past among the Sami of northernmost Europe ('Lapp panic').

The varied ethnic groups of these two latah zones have no other culture traits in common than (i) learnt dissociation, which is practised from early youth onwards in religious, social, and therapeutic ceremonies, trance rituals and shamanic seances, and (ii) learning by imitation and coping by copying the behaviour of persons who appear to be more powerful. Sporadic occurrence of latah symptoms has been reported among some males in Arabic-Islamic populations of North Africa and Yemen, and among South African Bantu people. While European cases are rarely encountered elsewhere, the endemic and familiar incidence of so-called jumping, a reaction similar to latah, among males of French-Canadian background in certain rural areas of Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec, attracted scientific interest from the 1870s to the 1960s.(26 (ICD-10, F44.88; DSM-IV, 300.15)

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