A Bad Case of the Brain Fags

And other mental problems you probably won’t get in America.

By Jesse Bering

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand. In 1951, Hong Kong psychiatrist Pow-Meng Yap authored an influential paper in the Journal of Mental Sciences on the subject of "peculiar psychiatric disorders"—those that did not fit neatly into the dominant disease-model classification scheme of the time and yet appeared to be prominent, even commonplace, in certain parts of the world. Curiously these same conditions—which include "amok" in Southeast Asia and bouffée délirante in French-speaking countries—were almost unheard of outside particular cultural contexts. The American Psychiatric Association has conceded that certain mysterious mental afflictions are so common, in some places, that they do in fact warrant inclusion as "culture-bound syndromes" in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The working version of this manual, the DSM-IV, specifies 25 such syndromes. Take "Old Hag Syndrome," a type of sleep paralysis in Newfoundland in which one is visited by what appears to be a rather unpleasant old hag sitting on one’s chest at night.

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