Latah in Southeast Asia: Malayan Culture

Latah has been described as a culture-bound syndrome. This condition originated from Southeast Asia and it can occur by the startle reflex. A startle reflex can last up to 30 minutes. This outburst can consists of screaming, dancing, and a person laughing hysterically. According to the Malayan culture the term Latah comes from the root word “lata” and this means “fool” or “defect” (Winzeler). Some symptoms according to Winzeler include a person moving violently, crying uncontrollably, and shouting out sexual or vulgar language. A person can also engage in the imitation of others or things and have the same speech and movement over and over again. Latah syndrome occurs within the Malayan and Javanese cultures. What I found interesting about Latah is that when a person who has Latah is startled they usually imitate the behavior or obey the commands of the person that is around them or trying to get their attention. Most cases of Latah occur intentionally to amuse onlookers and to draw attention to the person who has Latah. It seems like Latah is somewhat gendered based after reading the article because it mentioned that middle-aged women usually get Latah. Winzeler also mentions that Latah can occur in individuals for a number of reasons. Death of a love one or a child and very traumatic experiences can be the reason Latah occurs in individuals.

It almost seems like individuals who struggle in controlling their emotions and behavior suffer from Latah. And since they cannot properly cope or deal with life struggles they act out and have these continued outburst. There appears to be a little controversy when it comes to Latah being identified as an actual illness because there is a lack of individuals who experience and report this syndrome. There are rarely no individuals who actually seek treatment and help for Latah. Also, I find it interesting that there have been no reports on traditional remedies for Latah. Perhaps, Malayan people and their culture do not classify or view Latah as a mental illness. Western culture once again tries to classify Latah as a disease or mental illness and this may not be the case within the Malayan culture.



Robert Winzeler. The Study of Malayan Latah. Indonesia, No. 37 (Apr., 1984), pp. 77-104 Published by: Southeast Asia Program Publications at Cornell University Stable URL: . Accessed: 20/07/2012


4 thoughts on “Latah in Southeast Asia: Malayan Culture

  1. From your post it seems as though Latah covers a wide variety of behavior that could fit into several different types of disorders in western medicine. I do not feel that Latah should be considered a type of CBS. The reason being is that these same types of behaviors happen to people all around the world. They are not specific to the Malayan culture. The symptoms seem to cover a wide variety of behavior and as you pointed out anyone having difficulty controlling their behavior could be diagnosed with Latah. Coming from a western thinking mind I believe there could be many possible disadvantages for considering this a CBS. By treating these people as though they are not simply suffering from common mental/emotional illness prevents treatment to these people. As you mentioned the Malayan’s do not seem to treat these people suffering from this disorder. If the CBS category was taken away and people were diagnosed using the western system many of the behaviors attached to Latah could be treatable through our biomedical system.

    As you said in the post “some symptoms according to Winzeler include a person moving violently, crying uncontrollably, and shouting out sexual or vulgar language.” In the west these behaviors such as these could be associated with autism or turrets syndrome. To treat them as though they are suffering from the CBS Latah denies them treatment of the disorders that fall within that wide rage.

  2. Latah sounds like a what we call a psychotic break in western civilization. I personally do not think it should be considered a cultural bound syndrome because there are variations of this same occurrence everywhere. I think the Malayan culture does not treat it because it is a part of life and they are accepting to the various ways that people deal with a traumatic experience. There would be an advantage from the western culture perspective for labeling Latah as an illness. Th main advantagebeing having the ability to properly treat the person. They could behave as they normally did before the onset of the illness and their families may be less distraught. While the advantage seems to be good enough reason, for their culture more disadvantages can occur. In their culture, going through this illness could be a sort of spiritual cleansing so that the person can properly heal from the devastation. The behaviors themselves may not be seen as obscure but as a rite of passage to landmark in their lives. Treatments could also have side effects such as depression, that could cause them to exile themselves from their family and communities, which would cause their “illness” to become amplified.

    I think in other cultures, Latah could be seen as a from of menapause or a temporary psychological distress. I think that most cultures do not see actions as we do in our society. They take a more spiritual stance on why this may occur and believe that things happen for a reason. We take it upon ourselves to classify how to deal with various personalities and how to handle life situations. Overall I do not think Latah should be classified as a CBS.

  3. I do not think that Latah should be considered a culture-bound disease. Especially when you said that these episodes can result from the death of a loved one or a very traumatic event because these can lead to all kinds of psychological problems that are not necessarily associated with being culture bound. I think that these kind of outbursts can happen to anyone, in Southeast Asia they may have just characterized as Latah. It also sounds like these outbursts are not linked to one particular thing because they can be screaming, dancing, crying laughing. That is a wide range of emotions to link to only one disease. The advantages would be that it would distinguish this disorder in Southeast Asia. But I think that the disadvantages are more clear because they are distinguishing all these different emotional outbursts as Latah and people are not seeking help for them they are just saying it is Latah. Maybe if it wasn’t just seen as a culture-boud syndrome these people would actual seek the psychological help they may need in order to cure these.
    In our Western culture I think Latah would not be considered Latah. Western culture understands that traumatic events lead to crazy, different emotions that are likely to change a person. I think that people with these outbursts would seek the treatment that they need like mainly seeing psychologists, or behavior specialists, to really get to the root of why they are acting like this and get the treatment they need.

  4. Latah is a syndrome that I have never heard before and I found in quite interesting. This should not be regarded as a CBS because with the simple fact of me just now learning about it is all of the evidence I need. It is very uncommon and it sounds more like an individual psychological problem more than anything. I never hear about this in the Western culture or any other culture for that matter. The advantages of it being a CBS is that it can be recognized as an actual problem. Therefore, people can possible receive the help that they need. However, the disadvantage is that a lot of people do not get help for this problem. There are also no remedies found for this illness. This is why I don’t understand why it is considered a CBS. There are not enough people that report having symptoms let alone having any treatment for it.

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