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Culture-Bound Syndromes

Updated on July 14, 2011

            A man seated upon the sun-baked ground twitches. He has been still for several minutes, eyes glazed, both arms hanging loosely at his sides. A moment later he twitches again and suddenly begins to convulse. While writhing in the hot dirt, he begins to mumble, then scream, grasping at the air, seeking what is not there. Those that gather around him watch and wait. No one comes to his aid, but all sit intently, listening and watching. Apparent to anyone within the realm of the Western Hemisphere would be the clear presence of some untreated and dangerous neurological deficiency. Yet, within Taiwanese culture where such an occurrence, known as hsieh-ping, is a commonality, this physically and mentally debilitating affliction would be recognized as having a far different causation: possession by an ancestral spirit. If this individual had been admitted into an American medical facility, he would have been misdiagnosed even if all his ailments had been remedied. This contradiction would be due to the fact that hsieh-ping is a culture-bound syndrome, implying that, albeit biologically identifiable as a sickness, the interpretation, understanding, and treatment of such would be culture specific.

            What follows are several regional examples illustrating these psychiatric and somatic phenomena:

Hmong Sudden Death Syndrome (Laos): Seen most commonly within refugee populations, victims of this disorder suffer –while sleeping- a sense of panic, paralysis, chest pressure, and further disturbing sensations. This intense psychological stress often induces sudden death from unidentifiable reasons.

Since 1993, 150 cases of this sudden death have been recorded on American soil.

For further information on the Hmong Sudden Death Syndrome, look to Readings in Ethnic Psychology by Pamela Balls Organista, Kevin M.Chun, and Gerardo Marin.

Kuru (New Guinea): This degenerative neurological disorder, with symptoms similar to mad cow disease, is caused through the practice of cannibalism, which was practice in the region until it became officially banned in the early 1960s.  Any cannibalism occurred purely within the context of funerary rituals, wherein women, who prepared the bodies of the dead, partook of small portions of the deceased’s brain, which often contained an infectious protein, subsequently leading to arm and leg pain, coordination problems, headaches, swallowing difficulties, tremors, and eventual death.

For further information on Kuru, look to Laughing Death: The Untold Story of Kuru by Vincent Zigas.

Anorexia nervosa (North America, Western Hemisphere): A psychological illness associated with weight obsession, anorexia is an oftentimes incurable practice of severe restriction of food. Almost all individuals who are diagnosed with this condition are young females, most of whom are Caucasian and of higher socioeconomic status. Symptoms of anorexia include, but are not limited to, drastic weight loss, depression, social withdrawal, impaired organ functions fatigue, loss of attention, irritability, and death. Treatment of anorexia may include outpatient treatment directed towards gradual weight gain and psychological therapy.

For more information on Anorexia nervosa, look to Anorexia nervosa: When food is the enemy by Erica Smith, 100 Questions & Answers about Anorexia Nervosa by Sari Fine Shepphird, and Anorexia nervosa: a multidimensional perspective by Paul E. Garkinfel and David M. Garner.

Windigo Psychosis (Native American): In Algonquian culture, the windigo is a cannibalistic entity with a heart made of ice that possesses individuals. Those who succumb to this malevolent spirit, generally in the winter months, are then diagnosed as having windigo psychosis, which causes the victim to crave human flesh and suffer from symptoms such as depression, nausea, distaste of ordinary food, and states of disconnectedness. The only treatments available are in the hands of traditional healers.

For further information on windigo psychosis, look to, and Revenge of the Windigo by James Burgess Waldram.

For further information on culture-syndromes as a whole, look to The Culture-bound syndromes: folk illness of psychiatric and anthropological interests by Ronald C. Simons.

Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Those are great questions, tsmog.

      I may have to take the issue of classification up on yet another hub.

      Once more, thank you so much for reading.


    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 

      7 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Interesting, yes, odd, yes, true, must be. Now you have me curious what has to take place for an affliction to receive a classification as a disease or illness - how many documented cases, length of existence, etc. Very curious view upon health / wellness I hadn't thought of. thanks!

    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Hah! Told ya!

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Mr. Suits,

      As always, you give me plenty to consider.Certainly, you are right about the role of the environment in the evolution of these diseases. The reason why I state "culture" is because culture is geographically circumscribed in many cases.

      As to why these crazed afflictions happen? No clue. Something along the evolutionary trajectory went haywire. Our sudden rapid development throughout the past last thousands of years probably spurred the wrath of consistent change, and voila!

      It would be interesting to try out your theory with the "jungle people" as well. I wonder what they would in fact choose?

      And no cupcakes...


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Hiya lilith...

      Ya know, I can't help wonder where the hell all these killer afflictions came from in the first place. There must be hundreds and hundreds of them globaly. Was God thoughtful enough to create them for us in the beginning?

      Next time around, if I have more children, I'll have to remember to include a few killer desieses in their adolescent enviornment just to be creativily correct I suppose.

      I would also suggest that many of these so called cultural afflictions are not cultural at all but enviornmental that simply cause an onset because a particular culture exists where the affliction exists. Granted, many afflictions are directally related to cultural practices such as Kuru you mentioned above..


      And these are the people and the cultures, we of the modern world should not interfear with so they say. No Mam, I still don't think so. What's so prescious about a culture anyway? They come and go with the wind. Humanity is what we should be concerned with not some jungle life style so isolated that it's inhabitants have no knowledge of the outside world let alone a chance in hell of progressing with the rest of humanity. Give any one of them a net connected Ipad and ask them a week later if they would wish to continue living in a jungle or would they prefer a Miami Beach condo with all the other cultural ammenities that go with it.

      I got an idea for your next hub..."How to make really really pretty cupcakes". Geez.........I know,I know, Look what's talking...Mr. doom and gloom himself. Well hell lady...Old farts are supposed to be like that. Your young and pretty, lighten up and write at least one frivolity, something flamboyant, colorful, and petty. Bet you can't!

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      that absolutely sounds like something I would enjoy. Thank you very much for the excellent tip!


    • danielleantosz profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting! Have you read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"? It is about a Hmong girl living in the US who appears to have epilepsy and the clash between the Hmong culture and American medical practice. I think you would enjoy it.

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Thank you RJ!

      I am so glad that you enjoyed this hub.

      The link that you enclosed was marvelous. What a great and inspiring story. I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.

      With many thanks,


    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      7 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Welcome to HUB writing. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and Useful.” I'm now your fan! RJ

      Based upon this HUB, you might enjoy…


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