Pokemon Contagion: Photosensitive Epilepsy or Mass Psychogenic Illness?

South Med J. 2001;94(2) 

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The late Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that the technological revolution has recreated the world in the form of a "global village."[51] The continuing reliance on mass communications, especially television and the Internet, give the novel nature of the Pokémon illness outbreak added significance. Technological innovations are occurring at unprecedented rates and have the potential to influence significant numbers of people beyond the typical number in traditional mass hysteria episodes. Rapid and perpetual technologic innovations are changing the face of how and where we work, how we interact with others, how we play, and many other facets of everyday life. Epidemic hysterias that in earlier periods were self-limited by geography now have free and wide access to the globe in seconds. The 1938 Martian panic radio broadcast exemplifies the potential impact of the mass media in spreading social delusions, since it is estimated to have frightened about 1.2 million Americans.[52] The incident is not considered a case of epidemic hysteria, however, since illness symptoms were not associated with the episode.[53]

Although a small number of persons affected by the Pokémon animation were confirmed as having photosensitive epilepsy, most of those examined or retrospectively surveyed by physicians clearly were not. Indeed, the incidence of photosensitive epilepsy is estimated at 1 in 4,000.[5] Such an incidence (0.025% of the population) cannot explain the number of children affected (in some cases nearly 7% of the viewers). The question remains, what were the vast majority of children experiencing? Inexplicably, no outbreaks of mass illness symptoms associated with viewing television were reported before and have not been reported since the episode. The large numbers of children affected and the transient, benign nature of their symptoms, which were typical of anxiety, are consistent with a diagnosis of mass anxiety hysteria.

Given the chameleon-like nature of hysteria, it should not be surprising that, as we enter the new millennium, it would manifest in a television-related setting. Epidemic hysteria has been known to take many forms, depending on the historical and cultural context. These include shaking, crying, and glossolalia accompanying Melanesian cargo "cults" and Holy Spirit movements[54,55,56]; running and laughing "fits" in central and southern Africa[57,58,59,60,61,62,63]; demon possession in Malaysia[64,65,66,67,68,69,70,71,72,73]; fainting in response to imaginary bug bites in the southern United States[74,75]; clay eating among Australian Aborigines[76]; and strange odors in modern Western schools and factories. The Pokémon illness symptoms are without precedence, given the large numbers affected, and may be a harbinger of future technological hysterias that have the capacity to affect unprecedented numbers of people at a phenomenal speed.


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