The Sleeping Beauties by Suzanne O’Sullivan review – 21st century health mysteries

Sleeping sickness, strange behaviour and mass hysteria ... a neurologist makes sense of ‘psychosomatic’ illness

In Sweden in recent years, hundreds of children of refugee families have fallen into coma-like states and not woken up again, sometimes for months or years. Dozens of people in three Nicaraguan communities have had tremors, convulsions, breathing difficulties and hallucinations that make them fight with superhuman strength and run into the jungle. Diplomats in Cuba, experiencing headaches, dizziness, tinnitus and fatigue, became convinced that they were victims of a new and terrifying sonic weapon. Older victims in two small towns in Kazakhstan blamed toxic mines for their sleeping sickness and strange behaviour, while fainting high school girls in Colombia were told they were crazy, attention-seeking and sexually frustrated. When similar symptoms swept through a school in New York, the environmental activist Erin Brockovich turned up, along with news crews, wanting to examine the site of a 40-year-old train crash.

While local communities give these symptoms distinct names and have very different opinions about their causes – from poisoning to secret weapons to being led astray by the devil – neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is convinced that they are the same type of disorder. What this book is far less clear about is what exactly we should call it. We may know it as “psychosomatic” illness, from the Greek words for “mind” and “body”, but in modern neurology the word “functional” has largely replaced that term. What was once known as “mass hysteria” (a term that has echoes of misbehaving nuns, dancing Canadians or the 1962 laughing epidemic of Tanganyika) is now more carefully described as “mass psychogenic illness” (MPI). O’Sullivan refers at different times to “functional neurological disorders” (FND) and “biopsychosocial” disorders, which seems a sensible label for symptoms that exist in the body as a result of activity in the brain and the influence of culture and environment. Whatever we call them, there are many reasons why these disorders are difficult to identify and treat – not least that many patients would rather be diagnosed with almost anything else. Fortunately, O’Sullivan is convinced that they can be helped.

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