Latah Syndrome in Malaysia and Indonesia

Latah is a culture-bound syndrome that is most prominent in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is characterized as a series of involuntary actions such as mimicking, hysterical laughter, profane language, dancing, and screaming.  These series of actions are initially catalyzed with a startle or sudden fright/scare to the affected person. According to the article I choose, this syndrome is not only seen in the Malaysian and Indonesian cultures. It is classified as a cross-cultural syndrome and varies depending on the reaction of the individual. The article states, “…the key difference is between latah that involves an exaggerated startle reaction and latah that also includes apparently involuntary imitative behavior. The latter is regarded by Winzeler and many Malays as ‘true’ latah.” From the lecture, one of the problems associated with culture-bound syndromes is that they can occur in many unrelated cultures which further implies that illnesses are not real or that they are just psychological.

To give a visual of this culture-bound syndrome the article relays a story about a woman that was affected by latah. Apparently some children had startled an elderly woman with a toy contraption that involved wooden chickens bending and pecking at a board. The older woman who normally moved at a slower pace began to immediately display imitative behavior. She began to bend and peck exactly like the wooden chickens.

I found this disease to be particularly interesting because both the Malaysians and Indonesians are known for their control and serenity. I’ve never heard of a disease that catalyzes such an abrupt series of physical, imitative reactions. The article comments on this control stating, “Both Malays and Javanese are known for their emotional control, their sensitivity to the nuances of social interaction, and the tact and indirection that characterizes such interactions.” Many anthropologists are very intrigued by this disease and are still studying and researching it.

Raybeck, Douglas. “Southeast Asia:–Latah in Southeast Asia: The History and Ethnography of a Culture-Based Syndrome.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Nov. 1995. Accessed July 19, 2013.

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  1. Ellen Howard says:

    To me, culture is a group of people with common interests, language, customs and usually location. It is a really broad definition and this may be because many cultures have overlaps, or people may be apart of more than one culture. After reading about the Latah syndrome in Malaysia and Indonesia, I think the syndrome could potentially be regarded as a CBS. Although you talked about how it can happen in other cultures, it is known to be prevalent in these specific locations, which makes it a bigger part of their culture. The advantages of it being regarded as a CBS is that people diagnosed or thought to have Latah aren’t looked at as just mentally crazy. By having it be a CBS, people with the syndromes may not be judged by outsiders as harshly. The disadvantage is the opposite. That the symptoms a person is having may be looked over too easily, missing out on what the deeper problem may be. In a different ethnomedical system or even a different culture, Latah would probably be described as an a impulsive neurological and mental problem and would probably be considered worse than just a culture bound syndrome.

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