April 26, 2016

Five fascinating culture-bound syndromes


The Geography of Madness is an investigation of “culture-bound” syndromes, which are far stranger than they sound. Why is it, for example, that some men believe, against all reason, that vandals stole their penises, even though they’re in good physical shape? In The Geography of Madness, acclaimed magazine writer Frank Bures travels around the world to trace culture-bound syndromes to their sources.

Here are five bizarre and fascinating syndromes that didn’t make it into the final book:

Wild Man Syndrome (New Guinea)

This condition tends to strike men of the Gururumba tribe in the New Guinea highlands. It’s also called “Wild Pig Syndrome.” The subject experiences rapid breathing and circulation, a drop in skin temperature, an inability to speak (or to only speak Neo-Melanesian, not Gururumba) and the urge to steal random items. When he returns from the woods, he is treated by being placed over a smoking fire and given a special feast.

Nangiarnek, or Kayak Angst (Greenland)

An anxiety-related syndrome known among the Inuit of Greenland that affects hunters who are alone on calm water with an absence of reference points (or sometimes in storms). Subjects experience confusion, dizziness, extreme fear of excessive movement and the delusion that kayak is filling with cold water. The attack generally abates upon the arrival of help or upon reaching land. But the fear often carries over into other aspects of their lives.

Ihahamuka (Rwanda)

A new syndrome that emerged after the 1994 genocide, which translates literally to “lungs without breath.” Ihahamuka affects survivors of the genocide who experience a sudden onset of shortness of breath combined with loneliness, hopelessness, hyper-vigilance and “behaving like a mad person.”

Hwabyung (Korea)

This syndromes translates as “anger (fire) disease,” and is believed to be cause by anger accumulating in the body and becoming dense. Suffers feel a pushing up in their chest, or a mass in their epigastrium, as well as heart palpitations, breathing difficulty, dry-mouth, insomnia, and others symptoms, and usually seek treatment from a physician, not a psychiatrist.

Empacho (Argentina) 

A common cultural syndrome in Argentina in which  sufferers experience indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting and loss of appetite that is believed to be cause by a bolus (a small round mass) of food stuck to the wall of their intestines. Treatments include  “popping the skin on the small of the back to dislodge the bolus,” and “rolling an egg on the stomach,” as well as drinking olive oil or herbal tea.


Geography of Madness white


The Geography of Madness is on sale now. You can buy your copy here or at your local independent bookstore


Frank Bures has been published in Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, Bicycling, Wired and have been included in a number of Best American Travel Writing anthologies. They’ve also been selected as “Notable” picks for Best American Sports Writing 2012 and the Best American Essays 2013. He speaks several languages, has lived in countries around the world, and currently lives in Minneapolis.