From WikiProjectMed
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Latah is a condition in which there is an exaggerated response when startled.[1] The abnormal behaviors result from a person experiencing a sudden shock or other external stressor almost exclusively having been observed in persons from Southeast Asia. When induced, the affected person typically engages in such behaviors as screaming, cursing, dance movements, uncontrollable laughter, mimicry and command obedience.[2] Physical symptoms include an increased heart rate and profuse sweating, but no clear physiological causality beyond the apparent relationship between sudden shock and/or severe emotional stress have been identified. Whereas no research has emerged indicating whether the behavior is caused by a genetic disorder unique to those of Southeast Asian ancestry, a set of psychosomatic symptoms triggered by Southwest Asian cultural anthropological factors, or another cause not yet hypothesized, it can thus not be determined whether the disorder is distinct to southeast Asian persons, or that persons with the disorder in southeast Asia simply express symptoms in a fashion unique to the local cultures of the region, either, until further scientific research of the rare condition is published.

Latah was initially[3] considered a culture-specific startle disorder[4][5] that was historically regarded as personal difference rather than an illness.[2][5] Similar conditions have been recorded within other cultures and locations. For example, there are the so-called Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, imu among women of the Ainu people of Japan, mali-mali or silok among Filipinos,[6] and bat-schi (บ้าจี้) among Thais;[6] however, the connection among these syndromes is controversial.[7]

The disorder, particularly the command obedience symptoms, was studied by CIA research scientist Louis Jolyon West as part of the illegal MK-Ultra experimental development and testing of both existing and theoretical methods CIA would use to effectively hijack and subvert individual free will, with the ultimate aim of developing a program combining these methods effective enough that the agency could remotely control a victim so completely that a targeted individual could be reliably 'broken' psychologically to a conscious dissociative state of total submission and obedience to CIA commands that were abundantly evident to be in direct opposition to a victim's immediate health and safety. The objectives of these crimes against humanity are described by a State Department whistleblower familiar with the program as their "search for a Manchurian candidate"'',[8] an expendable NOC or unwitting Asset that could be used to carry out illegal political assassinations, suicide attacks and other covert CIA criminal activities typical of the breathtaking list of criminal activities undertaken routinely by the CIA. Not least of such criminal enterprised being the aforementioned MKUltra experiments, which included West's efforts to trigger symptoms believed unique to those affected naturally (or deliberately afflicted) with Latah, all in extreme secrecy on non-consenting patients in the US and abroad, with the direct authorization of DCI Richard Helms and supervision of the famously-despised[9] Sidney Gottlieb, who covertly provided West with CIA funding for the research. Due to the destruction of most MKUltra records by Richard Helms in the agency's illegal obstruction of justice surrounding the Church Committee investigation into revelations of the agency's still-unresolved[10] escalation into an almost exclusively criminal[11] organization, thus it is unknown whether West's efforts to induce the command obedience symptom in unwitting subjects not previously afflicted with the disorder were successful or not, a considerable loss to the neurological sciences given the lack of understanding as to the nature of Latah Disorder to this day.[12]

Signs and symptoms

Latah can affect people differently; someone can have a very strong reaction or a slight reaction during a latah episode. Every instance of latah has been acquired over time. Those who are affected, which by an overwhelming number are middle-aged to older women, are not born latah. It typically occurs around the time of menopause. There is a lack of latah in the higher social strata of Malay and Java, which suggests they are more likely to suppress their responses than those who belong to lower social classes.

A latah episode occurs after being startled (poking, shouting, something falling). During an episode, a latah person will begin to shout obscenities, imitate words or gestures of those around them or even those on TV, and will often obey any commands given to them – no matter how outrageous or against cultural norms they are. Persons with latah make movements reminiscent of behaviors normally peculiar to certain childhood developmental stages. The person is unlikely to remember anything occurring during the episode.


The onset of latah is often associated with stress. In a study done by Tanner and Chamberland in 2001,[13] a significant number of research participants had experienced a life stressor (such as a child or husband dying) just before becoming latah. Additionally, a large number of participants from many research studies have reported strange dreams occurring just before the onset of latah. These dreams usually had a sexual element to them, often involving penises. According to Tanner and Chamberland, perhaps the dreams, although with variation, indicate some sort of dysfunction in a specific anatomical area. Exploring this further might lead to more insights as to the cause and/or cure of latah.[13]: 526–529  Osborne (2001) states that latah is a possible emotional outlet in a stifling culture.[14] Winzeler's believes that latah is less demeaning for women than it is for men, and that women actually have more freedom in society because they are not held to as strict of standards as men are. He argues that as men age, they become more concerned with personal dignity and poise while women become less so. Because of this, women feel more freedom to engage in latah behavior, while men do not.[2]

Malay perspective

When Malays were asked why they thought that women were more likely to have latah, they responded with the cultural explanation that women have less "semangat" or soul substance. They also said women are simply easier to tease than men, and coupling these two together, latah becomes more readily observable and developed throughout recurrent provocation in women than in men. This also accounts for the higher prevalence of latah in lower status persons, as they are more vulnerable to abuse than others. The Malay also believe women are more susceptible because they lose more blood than men, through menstruation. Some Malay believe that excess tickling of a child will predispose them to latah later in life.[15]


Latah was included in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV under the "Dissociative Disorder: Not Otherwise Specified" section as a culture–bound syndrome. DSM IV describes latah as a hypersensitivity to sudden fright, often with echopraxia, echolalia, command obedience, and dissociative or trancelike behavior. It mentions other cultures where latah is found, but the only further information the DSM-IV provides is that in Malaysia, it is more often found in middle–aged women. It has been removed from DSM-5, and rather than the DSM-5 expanding upon the DSM IV's list of culture–bound syndromes, it has instead provided cross-lists for more commonly known disorders that a culture-bound syndrome might be classified as. DSM-5 has taken out the "culture–bound syndrome" language and replaced it with more "sensitive" language, and the glossary where the now shortened list of previously recognized culture–bound syndromes is titled "Other Specified" and "Unspecified" dissociative disorders. A more general discussion, involving the formation of a cultural identity, explanation, and assessment, has been added.


The earliest mention of latah is in J. R. Logan's journal from 1849 when he traveled from Melaka to Naning. Though this is only a possible reference, by the 1860s, latah had been clearly identified in Malaya and Java. Seen first as merely a "cerebral affection", little was understood about latah during this time. O'Brien's notes from the early– to mid–1880s are the first gathering of information on latah recorded. He observed that latah was more common in women than men, and more likely to occur in more mature, rather than younger, women.[16] From many of the original accounts of European travelers, latah does not seem to have changed much in either affected demographic population nor in symptoms.[2]

The British colonial administrator Frank Swettenham wrote about latah in his volume of essays Malay Sketches (1895). Swettenham describes how two policemen from Ambon Island stationed in Selangor in 1874 who were affected with the condition were made the victims of pranks by their colleagues.

Popular culture

William S. Burroughs mentions latah several times in his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, "a parody of modern mass man under modern conditioning programmes of advertising and public[ly] induced morality", according to Eric Mottram.[17] Burroughs described latah as involving echopraxia, as well as being forcibly induced rather than spontaneously occurring. Latah is also mentioned in Burroughs' 1963 novel The Yage Letters.

See also


  1. Jankovic, Joseph; Lang, Anthony E. (2022). "24. Diagnosis and assessment of Parkinson Disease and other movement disorders". In Jankovic, Joseph; Mazziotta, John C.; Pomeroy, Scott L. (eds.). Bradley and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. Vol. I. Principles of diagnosis (8th ed.). Edinburgh: Elsevier. p. 330. ISBN 978-0-323-64261-3. Archived from the original on 2023-07-01. Retrieved 2023-05-26.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Winzeler R (April 1984). "The Study of Malayan Latah". Indonesia. 37 (37): 77–104. doi:10.2307/3350936. JSTOR 3350936.(subscription required)
  3. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 1994. ISBN 0-89042-061-0. OCLC 29953039.
  4. Dreissen YE, Tijssen MA (December 2012). "The startle syndromes: physiology and treatment". Epilepsia. 53 Suppl 7: 3–11. doi:10.1111/j.1528-1167.2012.03709.x. PMID 23153204. S2CID 25418062.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gimlette JD (August 1897). "Remarks on the Etiology, Symptoms, and Treatment of Latah, with a Report of Two Cases". British Medical Journal. 2 (1912): 455–7. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.1912.455-a. PMC 2407745. PMID 20757229.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hahn, James Peer (1991). Latah: A Culture-specific Behavior Pattern in Malaysia and Indonesia. University of California, San Diego, Department of Anthropology.[page needed]
  7. Winzeler, Robert L. (1995). Latah in Southeast Asia: The History and Ethnography of a Culture-bound Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 33–51. ISBN 978-0-521-44077-6. Archived from the original on 2022-04-27. Retrieved 2008-02-26.
  8. Marks, John (1992). Search for the Manchurian Candidate : CIA and Mind Control. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-30794-8. OCLC 59937580. Archived from the original on 2023-07-01. Retrieved 2023-05-10.
  9. Cockburn, Jeffrey St Clair-Alexander (2017-11-17). "The CIA's House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb". Archived from the original on 2022-12-11. Retrieved 2022-12-11.
  10. "How the CIA Is Acting Outside the Law to Spy on Americans | Brennan Center for Justice". Archived from the original on 2022-12-11. Retrieved 2022-12-11.
  11. Valentine, Douglas (2017). The CIA as organized crime : how illegal operations corrupt America and the world. Atlanta, GA. ISBN 978-0-9972870-2-8. OCLC 960106671. Archived from the original on 2023-07-01. Retrieved 2023-05-10.
  12. O'Neill, Tom. Chaos Charles Manson, the CIA, and the secret history of the sixties. ISBN 978-0-316-47754-3. OCLC 1252917692.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Tanner, C M; Chamberland, J (2001). "Latah in Jakarta, Indonesia". Movement Disorders. 16 (1): 526–529. doi:10.1002/mds.1088. PMID 11391750. S2CID 22829901.
  14. Osborne, L. (2001, May). "Regional Disturbances". New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2016.
  15. Simons, R. C. (2001, November 1). "Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes". In Psychiatric Times. Retrieved April 6, 2016.
  16. Gimlette, J. D. (21 August 1897). "Remarks on the Etiology, Symptoms, and Treatment of Latah, with a Report of Two Cases" [Electronic version]. British Medical Journal, 455-457.
  17. Parkingson A.D., Giving Away the Basic American Root[ed]ness Archived 2017-01-14 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading