What is Latah?

Christina Edwards
Christina Edwards

Latah is a medical condition in which sufferers have an unusual response when their startle reflex is triggered. Many of them seem to enter a type of trance characterized by repetitive movements and sounds. Latah is known as a culture-specific or culture-bound syndrome. This means that it is recognizable only in certain cultures or areas. In this case, latah is usually only present in the countries of Southeast Asia.

To understand latah, it helps to understand a little about the human startle reflex. Everyone has a startle reflex that causes us to react to certain unexpected stimuli. When the startle reflex is triggered, the body reacts a certain way. Many people will jump and possibly yell, and their blood pressure and heart rate will go up for at least a few seconds.

Latah sufferers, most of whom are women, react very differently when startled. When latah patients' startle reflexes are triggered, many observers say that they seem to enter a trance. Most will begin to repeat certain words, gestures, or phrases.

A latah is usually echophraxic and echolalic. Echophraxia is when a person copies the movements of those around her, while echolalia occurs when a person copies the speech of those around her. Both of these conditions are considered to be completely involuntary, meaning that the sufferer can not stop herself from doing it. Those who study latah believe that sufferers of this condition truly don't realize what they are doing. Most of them have no recollection of what they did during these episodes, so they are not usually held accountable for what they did.

In many areas where this condition is present, a latah sufferer is often accepted or even embraced in the community. It is not uncommon for Malaysian village members to purposely provoke someone suffering from latah. The reaction seems to provide entertainment, and rib poking and other shenanigans at the expense of latah patients.

Culture-specific syndromes are very controversial and rare disorders. Sufferers of these types of disorders don't usually have anything physically wrong with them, but they still exhibit both mental and physical symptoms. Many scientists now believe that these disorders are not caused by anything physical, but they manifest based on what is acceptable and unacceptable in a certain culture.

Other culture-specific syndromes present in Southeast Asian societies include amok and koro. Individuals with amok have been known to fly into violent and unexpected rages, sometimes seriously injuring or even killing others in their paths. Koro is characterized by the belief that one's sex organ is shrinking and will eventually disappear. Severe self-mutilation to prevent this from happening is not uncommon.

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Discussion Comments


I don't think that latah is neurological because if it was, wouldn't it be present in all cultures. Why is it culture-specific if there is an underlying medical condition?

It's more like a compulsive behavior, especially when it involves imitating others. I agree that this ought to be taken seriously and people with the condition need to be treated sensitively. But I suspect that it can only be treated with psychological therapy.


@MrsPramm-- It's definitely a neurological condition. I'm not an expert on the topic but I think that certain psychological traumas may play a role in it. But in terms of the physical reactions, they are not wanted or planned. I agree that more research needs to be done on this.


When I was in the Middle East, there was TV show for a while where someone with latah was purposely invited to be part of the audience. This person would have a reaction when he heard certain words or saw certain thing. For example, one hated lemons and if the word lemon was mentioned, he would react physically and verbally. He would repeat curse words or throw his hands repeatedly.

The sad part was that people found this funny and had a ball watching him. I suspect he agreed to be part of the show for a small payment. But I did not enjoy watching this at all. I wish people would recognize that this is a real medical condition and those with latah do not have control over their reactions.


@Iluviaporos - It sounds more like it's related to the nervous system somehow, since that is involved in the startle reflex. It could be psychosomatic and still be a valid medical condition. Since it sounds like they've tested whether or not it is truly involuntary at least.

It sounds more like they haven't done a huge amount of testing on it because it's not that dangerous. If local villagers will deliberately induce latah in people they probably see it as a relatively benign condition.


@clintflint - It might not be the brain at all. If the condition is so severely isolated, it might actually be some kind of virus or bacteria or prion that has just never been identified, or some unique reaction to local foods. It might even be genetic. There's no reason why latah has to be considered some kind of psychosomatic reaction.

It sounds similar to conditions like Tourettes and OCD, where people simply cannot help themselves from repetition, and it's been shown that this is because of physical differences in the way the brain reacts to stress.

I'll bet that, since it occurs in places without widespread medical facilities, it simply hasn't been as widely studied as illness in other places.


It's so fascinating that the human brain is capable of these sorts of things. I wonder if they have studied it to see if latah is only ever diagnosed on patients who have witnessed other sufferers, or if it forms spontaneously even when the person has never heard of the condition.

If it forms spontaneously, it might be due to some kind of unique cultural mindset that conditions sufferers so that they react that way. I'm not judging it, as I'm sure there are conditions in my own country that are never seen elsewhere. The brain is just really complex and will sometimes react in weird ways.

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