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Date: Fri, 19 Dec 1997 16:24:46 EST
Subject: [Atheist] re: AANEWS for December 19, 1997
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Millenial jitters? Or just another case of social contagion in Japan?

American Atheists, AANews, #367, 19 December 1997

Social contagion—the epidemic-like spread of hysteria and other states of heightened emotional excitement within a group or community—may explain some religious miracles and apparitions, paranormal events, and possibly even Tuesday's bizarre incident in Japan where hundreds of youngsters were allegedly induced into seizures and other traumatic states by a cartoon character.

More than 700 people, most of them children, were taken to hospitals earlier this week after watching an animated television show titled Pokemon or Pocket Monsters. Symptoms reportedly included seizures, dizzy spells, loss of consciousness and vomiting. During an episode of the cartoon which depicted a child and a monster inside a computer battling a virus program, bright red lights flashed from the eyes of the program's most popular character, a rat named Pikachu; initial reports suggest that special effect triggered the odd reactions.

The incident quickly raised calls for stiffer government controls on cartoon shows and other children's programming; police in Tokyo said they would investigate to see if TV officials had been negligent. The disquieting event also seems to tap into fears of mind control and other forms of manipulation by media, even on the level of pop culture scenarios like the movie Videodrome where people are hypnotized into committing violent acts. The reactions could be a form of widespread social hysteria, though, something which has been suggested as a contributing factor to reports of religious apparitions and even paranormal claims such as flying saucer sightings.

What is puzzling about the Japan incident, however, is that while 700 people were rushed to hospitals for treatment, symptoms varied considerably. There is also little evidence to support the claims that pulsating lights on the television somehow triggered profound behavior changes and alterations of consciousness.

The documented cases of children with seizures only in response to video games or television are incredibly rare, noted Dr. Paul Garcia, a neurologist at the University of California and director of the epileptic clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. He told the San Francisco Examiner, though, There is a well-established phenomenon of seizures that are caused by visual stimulation, specific to particular patterns or rates or intensity... It is a physical manifestation of excessive abnormal firing of neurons. But the paper added that there was no evidence that photosensitive epilepsy in the general population was triggered by television cartoons, video games or bright flashing lights. Even in persons already known to be epileptic, the phenomenon occurs in only about 3%.

A spokesperson for the Epilepsy Foundation of America took a dark view of the events in Japan, warning that the incident should be a wake-up call to advertisers, video game producers and TV program directors to be more aware of the possible risk of seizures from flashing, strobing and repetitive pattern images on television and in certain video games. But nagging questions remain. Why hadn't other incidents of Pokemon or other cartoon episodes triggered the response? And why doesn't comparable animation, with its fast- moving pace and flashing light effects, trigger similar outbreaks in the United States and elsewhere? The New York Times noted that producers of the show had used these effects hundreds of times in the past.

Studies in Japan suggest that more than 10,000 persons are afflicted with what is termed optically stimulated epilepsy, and that the condition is easily treated with medications. Some doctors say that the core group of those affected is under twenty years of age.

It is not known, however, how many of the 700 reported cases to hospitals involve children who were in groups watching the Pocket Monsters program, and could have been influenced by social contagion—queuing in on the behavior of other youngsters. Similar contagion patterns have been cited to explain outbursts of social hysteria, including the frenzied activities of religious revivals.

Miracles, Contagion and UFO?

Behavioral scientists and others interested in group dynamics may find the incident in Japan a treasure trove of information which touches on several interesting areas. One involves electrical activity in portions of the brain that could trigger heightened states of emotional sensitivity, resulting in feelings or hallucinations centered around religious revelation and feelings of wholeness.

One scientist investigating this phenomenon is Dr. Michael Persinger, a neuroanatomist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. As early as 1982, Persinger was advancing a hypothesis that certain electromagnetic conditions triggered responses in parts of the human brain associated with heightened states, including religious feelings. Since then, Persinger has studied everything from UFO sightings and reports of luminous, high-energy atmospheric display, to public apparitions like the alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary at Fatima. One possible trigger linking these otherwise diverse phenomenon could be energetic fields resulting from geological activity like earthquakes. It's a bold hypothesis; but in controlled experiments, Persinger has managed to replicate ecstatic feelings and altered states of consciousness in his subjects by surrounding their heads with electrical emitters. It's interesting to note that when the PBS program NOVA first showcased Persinger's claim in a program dealing with UFO sightings, many of the witness reports cited encounters with bright flashing lights and other visual stimuli.

The only link between Persinger's investigations and the Japan outbreaks, though, might be the wider subject of how the electrical activity in the human brain affects our perceptions of the world around us, and alters behavior. There is also a wider social context in which the Japan epidemic occurred—one of heightened social stress and anxieties in light of numerous factors. The role of law enforcement authorities is interesting, and early media reports could not help drawing possibly comparisons between the the threat of rampant seizures allegedly induced by a childrens' television show and the sarin gas attacks launched two years ago by the Aum Supreme Truth cult which injured over 5,000 persons. Public reaction to the video attack may also be crafted by heightened social anxieties brought on by Japan's precarious economic outlook, the assault on traditional cultural and religious institutions by globalization, a possible threat to established corporate institutions and policies, and other factors. The notion that behavior can be controlled by something as prosaic as a simply television cartoon also plays into deeper feelings of helplessness—impotence in technological society, and feelings that one is being controlled or manipulated (even on a subconscious level) by social or technological elites—a theme rampant in the contemporary techno-horror genre of movies and literature.