“The Diseases You Only Get if You Believe in Them”


For The Atlantic, Julie Beck explores syndromes and “diseases” that are unique to particular cultures. She interviews Frank Bures, author of new book “The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.See an excerpt of their interview below.

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Beck: So now we’re getting into very contentious territory, right? There’s a dichotomy people will draw, with a lot of things, but it’s just particularly clear here with the cultural syndromes, between things that are real and things that are socially constructed or made up. And I wonder if these fights over whether things like seasonal affective disorder would be better served by a different question rather than is it real or is it not real.

Bures: Yes I definitely think so. Your question gets to this idea of whether something is physical or mental. And historically things that are physical have been considered real and things that are mental have been considered not real, or imagined, or psychosomatic. That’s the biomedical model, that the body is like a machine, all our experience is caused by these biochemical reactions and you should be able to fix things by changing the biochemistry. I think a more accurate or complex model is a biolooping model where our ideas, our mindsets, and our beliefs feed back into the biology and change the biology in a way you can measure. It’s real but it’s not physical first. It’s mental first.