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The Mysterious Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Everyone loves laughing. It brings us joy, heals us, and brings us together like nothing else. The world indeed needs more laughter, and they say that laughter cures all ills. Yet what if the illness itself is laughter? What if you just started laughing one day and could not stop until you were incapacitated? They say laughter is contagious, and indeed Charles Dickens once famously said “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter,” but what if this was all quite literal, and that it could be a type of disease? That is what seemed to happen in one remote African village back in 1962, when people began breaking out into a contagious laughter that would not stop, and go on to become a true modern mystery.

It started on January 31, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, on the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika, Tanzania, in Africa. On this day several students at the school suddenly and without warning broke down into fits of uncontrollable laughter for no apparent reason, at the most inappropriate and inopportune of times. At first it was just a curiosity, but then it began to actually spread, with more and more students going into fits of unfettered giggling and laughter, until it had blazed like wildfire through the entire school, much to the puzzlement of parents and teachers, who remained unaffected. It got so bad that many teachers quit and the school was forced to close down, but this wasn’t even the end of it.

School in Tanganyika

The mysterious fits of laughter would worm out into the rest of the village and surrounding areas, until it was affecting 14 schools and more than 1,000 people. Symptoms of the unexplained condition included recurring attacks of laughing and conversely crying or screaming, general pain or fatigue, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes, which lasted from a few hours up to 16 days and had side effects including restlessness, excessive nervous energy, and bursts of occasional violence. There seemed to be no end in sight as the curious epidemic spread to neighboring villages, even bleeding into neighboring Uganda, and was seriously disrupting their society. Tanzanians would call it omuneepo, or “the laughing disease,” and doctors and scientists took a look at the problem but could find no physical reason for the outbursts, even as they got so bad that some children were left bedridden, unable to stop their incessant laughter. This would continue for a full 18 months, and one Christian F. Hempelmann, of Texas A&M University, has said of it all:

People take this at face value. One person laughs, then another person laughs, then it spreads like an avalanche. So when parents picked up their children from school, they started laughing. Then it spread to other villages, and so on. And depending on where you read about it, the laughing epidemic lasted for anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half.

The curious epidemic of laughter then suddenly stopped just as abruptly as it had started, leaving doctors and scientists scratching their heads. Just what was going on here? One of the main theories is that it was some sort of mass psychogenic or sociogenic illness, brought up through chronic stress and passed around merely psychologically, a kind of mass hysteria. In this theory it was all psychosomatic, and Hempelmann has explained of all of this:

Now we call it Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI). It’s psychogenic, meaning it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It’s not caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin. There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population. It usually occurs in a group of people who don’t have a lot of power. MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It’s an easy way for them to express that something is wrong. That may be why it has come to be associated more often with women. This is probably a culturally determined disease.

Another idea was that this was all caused by some sort of virus of the brain. Silvia Cardoso, a behavioral biologist at State University of Campinas in Brazil, believes that the laughter epidemic was caused by a virus similar to encephalitis that damaged structures in the basal part of the brain to create the bouts of laughter, saying, “I find it improbable that a purely psychological mass reaction would last so long and be so widespread.” However, no sign of a virus or any sort of toxin were found in any of the victims. To this day the mysterious epidemic of laughter has never been explained, and it remains a curious oddity.