The July edition of the The Psychologist has an absolutely fantastic article on the ‘dancing manias’ that swept through Europe in the middle ages and triggered an exhausting compulsion to dance.
The piece looks at the history of these manias and discusses them in terms of dissociation, the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’, which is something we discussed the other day with respect to modern day possession and trance rituals.
Dissociation is usually discussed as something individual, whether the person induces it deliberately through ritual, lets themselves be affected through hypnosis, or is affected involuntarily, as in the case of ‘conversion disorder‘.
However, there are hundreds if not thousands of cases of ‘mass hysteria’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness’ that have been documented and are that are thought to involve a similar mental process.
Unfortunately, these ‘mass hysterias’ tend to be widespread but fleeting affairs, meaning they’re hard for researchers to study.
One of the commonest findings, however, is that they often occur where people find themselves in an intolerable situation that they’re not able to influence or otherwise complain about.
If you’re interested in learning more, I really recommend a 2002 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry by sociologist Robert Batholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely as an excellent introduction to the field.
Otherwise, Batholomew’s books are excellent. My favourite is his 2001 book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975).
Anyway, The Psychologist article is a great place to start and one of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read on the topic for a while.
Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist. I also love dancing manias.