Latah and the rules of rule breaking

Latah is a curious mental state seemingly localised to Malaysia and Indonesia where a person gets wound-up to such a degree that they show an exaggerated startle response, are highly suggestible, and may produce unintentional tic-like behaviour sequences when prompted by others.

It has been discussed as rare exotica in the medical literature but owing to the wonders of the internet, there are now many videos of it on YouTube (welcome to the age of armchair anthropology).

The name is also used to refer to people who have a tendency to get into latah states, and other people may deliberately trigger latah behaviours in the person as a sort of usually good natured social teasing.

For example, this video has some friends indulging in some good natured joshing by getting one of their latah companions to do a whole range of daft actions through demonstration or suggestion. The latah seems compelled to comply, occasionally snapping out of it to implore them to ‘stop it!’.

There are many other examples online. Although the specific triggered behaviours vary, almost all have the element of good-natured group teasing.

The condition is described by Western psychiatry as a culture-bound syndrome as it is typically thought only to occur in Malaysian and Indonesian people although the medical literature has had an ongoing debate about whether other cultures have the same phenomenon under a different name.

This is from an article on culture bound syndromes from The Psychiatric Times:

This same physiology has been elaborated in a variety of societies that are unrelated either historically or culturally. Among the Ainu in Japan, the syndrome is called imu, and in a French-Canadian population in Maine it is called jumping. Thus, these syndromes are similar, but not identical, from society to society. This, of course, is true of the diagnostic entities described in DSM-IV as well. Like hyperstartling, sleep paralysis (a feeling of paralysis when either just falling asleep or waking up, sometimes accompanied by visual or audio hallucinations) has been elaborated into a culture-bound syndrome in a number of unrelated geographic locations. It is known as uqamairineq among the Yupik Eskimos and as old hag in parts of Newfoundland, Canada.

Anthropologists, who are much better at dealing with cultural variation without trying to shoehorn it into their familiar categories, have often loudly scoffed at the psychiatric definition of latah as a syndrome, suggesting it is just a defined social role of the local culture that has its own limits and and ‘rules’.

The latah can break social convention by swearing or acting the fool, but violence or sexual indecency rarely occur and would be frowned upon.

In other words, it allows for socially sanctioned rule breaking while giving the person the justification of not being in control of their behaviour.

This is a common theme in society. Think about our ideas of a ‘wild night out’. Someone gets really drunk and flashes their arse at a passing bus – craaazy! Someone gets really drunk and flashes their cock at a bus – sex offender.

The ‘drunk’ reason doesn’t seem to excuse the latter quite so well, showing that there are limits to being ‘out of control’.

This doesn’t mean that we are fully in control either, it just means that all societies have established ways of allowing us to live on the boundaries (the liminal if you want the jargon).

From this perspective, Latah is a local example of a common human tendency.

Link to video of a latah (more here – thanks Ivan!)
Link to Psychiatric Times on culture-bound syndromes.

4 Comments

  1. brainfart
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing the phenomenon Latah. This is the first time I have come across it. It reminds me of stage hypnotism. From what I understand, the ‘state’ in stage hypnotism is no more than simply giving one permission to be silly and act out different scenarios that may otherwise be inappropriate to act upon. There is a common factor here of suggestibility. I would be interested if anyone else made some connections here.

  2. GeraldD
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    I am a UK expat living in Indonesia and have always been fascinated by Latah.
    A lot of Indonesians believe that it is an act; a socially acceptable way of attention seeking in a culture that generally frowns on outbursts and overt individuality. I have never found it particularly convincing when I’ve encountered it but that might well be my cultural bias.
    Equally fascinating is the phenomenon of hypnosis crime over here. My Indonesian friends and in-laws often recount how they or people they know have been hypnotized into emptying their bank accounts or handing over their valuables, normally after being tapped on the shoulder (?!)

  3. Posted September 8, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting to know what characterizes people who are susceptible to this in Indonesia, and how people with those same character traits play them out in other cultures.

  4. Xavier Lawrence
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Suprisingly, most of the individuals with this condition are usually ethnic malays. I have yet to come across any of the other ethnic races displaying the state of latah….Strange but True..


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