Culture Bound Syndrome Series: Latah

Let’s talk about culture-bound syndromes. One by one.

Today brings us to Malaysia and Indonesia where we can find latah. In Malay, latah means nervous, ticklish, jumpy, or love-madness.

Latah is a chronic condition that falls into the family of startle-syndromes. When a person with latah is startled, he or she responds with a unique set of behaviors.

These behaviors include: coprolalia (blurting out sexually explicit words), forced obedience (the person will do whatever they are told, even if it’s dangerous or embarrassing), yelling out the name of what startled them, echolalia (repeating what others have said, often with a mocking tone), and echopraxia (mimicking the actions of another, often with a mocking tone). When this is happens, the person is aware of what’s going on but not in control.

People within the culture regard this syndrome as a quirk rather than an illness. Also, it’s common for the sufferers to be teased and purposefully provoked so that others can watch the attack. At the same time, the person with latah is mocking his or her provokers. The symptomic person is not held responsible for anything done or said during an attack.

I’m not sure how prevalent this is currently. Since this is a rare culture-specific disorder, most descriptions come from nonmedical colonial observers or, later, western anthropologists.

It’s possible to find some case descriptions from the late 19th century to early 20th century online. Read these:

“The Study of Malayan Latah” by Robert Winzeler in Indonesia (1984)

“Remarks on the Etiology, Symptoms, and Treatment of Latar, with a Report of Two Cases” by John D Gimlette in The British Medical Journal (1897)

Early observers report that the syndrome affects both male and female adults regardless of socio-economic status. However, most of the case descriptions are of servants in colonial homes. This could be because those are the people the Europeans saw on a day to day basis, or there could be a socio-economic factor.

The early descriptions and conceptualizations are interesting and sometimes disturbing. Observers sometimes appear to test just what the sufferer will do. For example, one woman is told to eat matches, and another is told to nurse a felt hat. In another example, a woman is handed a knife and told to kill someone (actually just a pile of clothes under a blanket made to look like someone sleeping). In each case, the patient is later disgusted or embarrassed by what she did.

The most recent description I found is this:

“Appendix I: Culture-specific startle syndromes” in The startle reflex in children with neuropsychiatric disorders, a PhD thesis by M.J. Bakker (2009)

The authors notes that the syndrome is currently found only among women of low socio-economic status and gay transgendered men. Also, the person will develop the syndrome during a time when he or she is under a lot of stress, has experienced a loss, or had a “scare.”

Much of the more recent writing considers the syndrome in the context of culture and marginalization. They describe the mainstream culture in those areas as somewhat sexually restricted with strict rules about behavior and decorum. They suggest that this is a chance for the sufferer, who is usually somewhat “invisible” in society, to be noticed, to break cultural rules, and to mock those who mistreat them.

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