Mass Hysteria: Anybody’s Illness

I’ve always had an interest in mental disorders and the effects they can have on a person. My interest in psychological disorders was furthered after we researched and “diagnosed” Van Gogh with his own mental disorder. I’ve always been fascinated with how the mind can become sick like the rest of our body. However, there are some mental disorders that interest me more than others. 

One activity my mom and I love to do together is to settle down on the couch after dinner and watch our favorite T.V. shows. We watch everything from The Bachelor, to This is Us, to hospital shows like Chicago Med and The Good Doctor. My personal favorite to watch is Chicago Med. The character Dr. Charles, who plays a hospital psychiatrist, inspired me to take the career path I’m currently on! 

The character Dr. Charles from Chicago Med who inspired me to major in psychology!

One episode of Chicago Med  that interested me was an episode about a girls’ soccer team. One player, Lacy, had experienced a seizure and now has a constant twitch. Lacy is worried because she has a soccer tournament and a calculus test coming up, and she can’t afford to miss school. While Dr. Charles is evaluating Lacy, other members of the soccer team start seizing. Suddenly, all of them are sick and nobody knows the cause. In the end it was a case of mass hysteria and they were treated with a placebo pill that was really an orange tic tac. 

Mass hysteria, is classified as a conversion disorder, and is when a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress. When a person is suffering from mass hysteria, there is no physical cause or symptom that points to them being sick, it is occuring all in the brain. According to a paper published in the Malawi Medical Journal epidemics of hysteria rely on the power of suggestion, but they are nourished by fear, sadness and anxiety. Victims tend to be subjected to severe psychological strain over the preceding weeks or months. One or more then develop a psychosomatic symptom, and those made suggestible by pent-up anxiety quickly follow suit. Before long, dozens are vomiting, fainting and screaming. (Balaratnasingam S and Janca A,  2010). 
But why does mass hysteria start? And how does it affect the brain? Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to study mass hysteria and he suggested that mass hysteria, or a conversion disorder, starts as a way to repress memories or emotional events that are going on around you, but with the repression of the memory the person “converts” the stress into a somatic symptom. 

In a study of sensory loss thought to be a conversion symptom, patients had a vibratory stimulus applied first to their right side, then to their left side. Data from a functional MRI study showed contralateral somatosensory activation when the stimulus was applied to the right side, but no such activation when the stimulus was applied to the left side. Instead, the stimulus applied to the left side activated regions in the patients’ orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate regions. The association between conversion symptoms and activity in the orbitofrontal regions is important because these regions are components of the neural networks regulating emotion and the expression of that emotion. (Feinstein 2011) 

Functional magnetic resonance image showing somatosensory activity evoked by stimulation in a patient with sensory conversion disorder affecting the left hand. When the patient’s left hand was stimulated, no activity was seen in the primary somatosensory cortex (arrow). However, increased activity was seen in this area of the brain when the patient’s right hand was stimulated (circle).

  This is relevant to conversion disorder in that the caudal segment, responsible for willed action, may be deactivated or suppressed by the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex as it processes intense emotion (Van Beilen et al. 2010) 

This means that the brain in people with conversion disorder are unable to have any “willed actions”, and they will essentially lose control of their bodily responses as their brain processes this intense emotion. The loss of bodily control is what is contributing to the seizures, tics, and other physical symptoms people experience. 

While mass hysteria sounds bizarre and crazy, it has happened many times in the world. The most popular example is the Salem Witch Trials which happened in the 1690’s. The panic from suspicion of witches resulted in 19 people getting killed (Cooper, 2016). 

Picture from Salem Witch Trials, one of the biggest cases of mass hysteria documented.

Another more recent example of mass hysteria was in 2011 in Le Roy, New York when twelve teenage girls began experiencing Tourette’s-like symptoms. The cause of their tics was nothing but stress. Mass hysteria has occurred many times throughout history and can happen to anybody.  

Treatment for mass hysteria is extensive cognitive therapy, and staying away from any stress inducing activities or environments.


Balaratnasingam S, & Janca A.(2010). Mass hysteria revisited. Med Hypotheses, 74(2): 244-5.

Cooper M. (2016). Mass hysteria in the Salem Witch Trials. The Odyssey. 

Ghaffar O, Staines R, Feinstein A. Functional MRI changes in patients with sensory conversion disorder. Neurology 2006; 67: 2036–8.

Van Beilen M, Vogt B, Leenders K. Increased activation in cingulate cortex in conversion disorder: What does it mean? J Neurol Sci 2010; 289:155–8.


fMRI picture: Ghaffar, et al. (cited above)

Chicago Med picture:

Salem Witch Trial Picture–salem-wi

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Emily Wang says:

    I think your topic is really interesting because it’s often very difficult to pinpoint exact reasons why something triggers a response in our brain. I think this post goes to show that in nature, with every push there is a pull or something needs to happen in order to establish an equilibrium. Looking at mass hysteria, it seems evident that our body and brain react in a convulsing nature because we need to balance out the accumulation of stress and pressure in our bodies. Additionally, I really like how you reiterated the scientific findings into a more understandable language and connected this topic to your interest in psychology!

  2. Kendra Askins says:

    This is so interesting! It’s such a strange concept that a person can experience symptoms of something without an observable cause. The brain is so interesting in how it controls everything. I thought that mass hysteria only happened far in the past, so I thought it was very interesting that you included a recent example. Also, your explanation of how mass hysteria occurs and examples of how the brain works made this much easier to understand.
    P.S. Dr. Charles is my favorite Chicago Med character!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *