Discussion Preview: Culture-Bound Syndromes with BU Mind and Brain Society

in Uncategorized
March 4th, 2011

Today, the concept of a ‘culture-bound syndrome’ seems almost mundane. Surely we already know that particular genes and environmental influences can predispose a population to certain diseases. For example, Ashkenazi Jews are at a much higher risk for developing the genetic defect associated with Tay-Sachs disease than other populations, and one is much more likely to contract malaria in tropical and subtropical regions than in, say, Massachusetts. However, these types of disease have biological causes. What is interesting about the phenomena of culture-bound syndromes is that they have no physical mechanism and arise only from the emerging characteristics of one’s culture.

Some well-studied examples of conditions documented only within a specific culture include:

Ghost sickness in the Navajo Native American Tribe: The sufferer is overcome with feelings of danger, feelings of suffocation, hallucinations, weakness, fainting, and preoccupation with death. The cause is usually attributed to ghosts. This specific syndrome has only been documented within the Navajo tribe.
Taijin Kyofushu in Japan: Feelings of anxiety toward the dread of offending others. The syndrome is broken into four sub-categories: Fear of blushing, fear of a deformed body, fear of a foul body odor, and fear of eye-to-eye contact.

An artist's interpretation of Ghost Sickness

An artist's rendition of Ghost Sickness

What is also interesting about culture-bound syndromes is that the culture is normally not quick to recognize them as such. The culture sees such a syndrome as a true disease with a definable cause. Considering that, have we classified some ailments as diseases that are really the emerging effects of our own society? For example: anorexia nervosa. There is a substantial body of research studying the biological aspects of anorexia, including genetic components. However, have these biological qualities evolved in response to our culture’s insistence on self-control and perfection?  In societies which hold to certain ideals so strongly, it is logical to believe that the constant bombardment of these stimuli can, and do, affect the body. As a culture, America puts an enormous amount of importance on perfection, success, and self-control and children are raised with these pillars as goals.  Is there a “critical period” during development when these cultural ideals are encoded within us?  If so, how?  Where?

If anorexia is in fact a culture-bound syndrome, to what culture is it bound? Is anorexia American? It is easy to see where the controversy arises. For many years the disease has been considered a western-bound cultural disorder; however, the scope has widened to include a prevalence in many eastern countries. Could this change be because of western influence in the east?  Or, perhaps, it is not geographically culture-bound at all.  Some suggest that anorexia is a “modernity”-bound syndrome, and that we, as world community, are the products of the era we live in.

What do you think?  Is anorexia a culture-bound syndrome?  What other disorders might be considered culture-bound?  Are culture-bound syndromes a real phenomenon?

Come to BU Mind and Brain Society’s discussion of culture-bound syndromes on Monday, March 7th at 8:00pm in room 109 of 2 Cummington.  We’ll discuss the many facets of culture-bound syndromes and how they relate to our society and biology.

Culture-Bound Syndrome – Wikipedia
The Concept of Culture-Bound Syndromes… – Social Science & Medicine
Eating disorders: a transcultural perspective – Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal
Culture Bound Syndromes – tripod.com

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