Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

Categories: Africa | Health and Medicine

In 1962, something strange happened in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) - students at one of the schools began to laugh for no reason. The laughter grew into a real epidemic and spread further: to neighboring villages and cities. Scientists are still trying to find the cause of this strange phenomenon.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

On January 30, 1962, three girls started laughing in the middle of class at a school in the village of Kashasha, Tanganyika. The teacher sent the laughing students into the courtyard to restore order in the classroom.

In the yard, the girls continued to laugh for no reason. The other students looked at their madness. One by one, the schoolchildren began to laugh. But their eyes did not smile at all. It was laughter like a curse. 50 years later, a local Muslim cleric told an American journalist that this is how the spirits of ancestors manifest their power.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

The laughter spread. In the end, 95 of the school's 159 students became infected with laughter. Along with giggling, the girls cried continuously. They resisted when adults tried to restrain them. Officials closed the school and sent the girls affected by the epidemic home to their villages.

And the laughter spread further: to the neighboring village of Nshaba, the city of Bukoba - and reached neighboring Uganda. The first report of the phenomenon was written in 1963 by P. H. Philip, a local medical officer, and A. M. Rankin, a professor at Makerere University College. They believe that the epidemic lasted six months. Other sources claim that it lasted a year, two or even more. About a thousand people “caught” the epidemic, most of whom were young women and girls.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

Psychology professor Robert Provine studied this phenomenon. He and his collaborators recorded more than 1,000 actual “laugh episodes” and studied the circumstances surrounding them. Provine found that, for the most part, people weren't laughing because something was funny. They used laughter as a kind of message to the world and group cohesion. “Laughter was social,” Provine concluded. And it was infectious.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

Silvia Cardoso, an ethologist at the State University of Campinas, studies laughter in both humans and animals. Unlike most of her colleagues, she dismisses the sociogenic nature of the disease. She believes that the epidemic could have been caused by a virus. In one interview she said:

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

American neurologists Hannah and Antonio Damasio suggest that abnormal laughter occurs when the structures of the main part of the brain are damaged. Based on this model, they believe that the 1962 epidemic was triggered by a viral infection - probably some kind of encephalitis in the main part of the brain.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

The truth about the 1962 epidemic remains in the shadows of history. No one wrote down the names of the three girls who were at the center of the outburst of laughter. Scholars' accounts vary. Scientist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner flew to Tanzania in search of witnesses to the epidemic. They detailed the research in their 2014 book, The Humor Code.

Warner and McGraw visited the school where the epidemic began. They spoke to local residents about their memories of the event. They even found one woman who may have been one of the victims. She refused to talk about that incident.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

Ultimately, McGraw and Warner drew conclusions from the literature, particularly Christian Hempelman's research. Mass psychogenic illness (what psychologists call “mass hysteria”) is essentially a reaction to a long-term build-up of psychological stress common to a group of people who feel powerless.

Laughter epidemic in Tanganyika in 1962. And it wasn't funny at all

The first scientists who documented the Tanganyika laughter epidemic came to similar conclusions.

This case may seem funny, but in fact it is a story about the destructive power of hopelessness, the inability to express protest and the rebellion of the body against the pressure of power as a way to complain about the surrounding reality.

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