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5 Historical Manias That Gripped Societies, Then Disappeared

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“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Charles Mackay may have written those words in 1841 in his social science classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, but what he has to say about mass manias and the behavior of crowds remains absolutely relevant today—as anyone who’s ever gone to a midnight sale of one of the Twilight books could tell you.

Mob mentality also goes some of the way—but not all the way—in explaining these real manias and outbreaks of strange behavior that came on disturbingly fast and disappeared just as rapidly. (Please note, Bieber Fever is not on the list.)

1. The Deadly Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages

In 1374, dozens of villages along the Rhine River were in the grips of a deadly plague—a dancing plague called choreomania. By the hundreds, villagers took to the streets leaping, jerking, and hopping to music no one else could hear. They barely ate or slept, and just danced, sometimes for days on end, until their bloodied feet could support them no more.

The plague swept the countryside and, almost just as suddenly as it had come, disappeared. Until July 1518, in Strasbourg, when a woman called Frau Troffea picked up the tune again and danced for days on end. Within a week, she was joined by 34 people; by the end of the month, the crowd had swelled to 400. If they’d been inmates in a Philippine prison, the whole thing would have been choreographed, set to “Thriller” and uploaded to YouTube, but since this was the Middle Ages, they just died. Dozens perished, having literally danced themselves into heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion. And, just as before, it just went away.

So what the hell happened? Historians, psychologists and scientists have tried to forensically get to the bottom of the dancing mystery. For a while, the prevailing theory was that it was a mass psychotic episode sparked by eating bread tainted by ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed, it can cause convulsions, shaking and delirium.

But John Waller, a history professor at Michigan State University, disagrees: According to all contemporary accounts of both outbreaks, the sufferers were dancing, not convulsing (in the mold’s defense, the two can be difficult to distinguish). And as to the other popular theory, that the victims were part of some heretic dancing cult, Waller says there’s nothing to suggest that they wanted to dance.

So Waller has a different theory—that these plagues were mass psychogenic illnesses, sparked by pious fear and depression. Both manias were preceded by periods of devastating famine, crop failures, dramatic floods, and all manner of Biblical catastrophe. Anxiety, fear, depression, and superstition—in particular, the belief that God was sending down plagues to persecute the guilty—made people susceptible to falling into this kind of involuntary trance state. And dancing plagues were the calling card of one St. Vitus, an early Christian martyr venerated with dance parties, meaning that the idea was already in the victims’ heads. All it took was one person to start it, and then everyone else followed.

Strasbourg wasn’t the last time a dancing plague ripped through a population—the most recent appears to be in the 1840s in Madagascar, where people danced as if possessed—but this epidemic appears to be rooted in a particular cultural milieu.

2. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962

It all started with a joke. But after 95 students at a girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were stricken by the laughing plague, forcing the school to shut down for two months, it didn’t really seem funny anymore.

The laughing epidemic began on January 30th, 1962, at the mission-run girls’ school in a tiny rural village in the Bukoba region of Tanganyika, according to a 1963 report Central African Medical Journal. It started with a bout of uncontrollable laughing among three pupils, which turned into a crying jag attended by anxiety, the fear of being chased, and in some cases, violence when restrained. The these symptoms quickly spread through the school, apparently transmitted by contact with an infected person; onset was sudden, and could last anywhere from a few hours to 16 days.

The school was forced to shut down in March after more than half the students—95 out of 159—were affected. And then, 10 days after the closure, the disease popped up again, this time in a village 55 miles away. Several of the sick girls had come from the village and, though the medical journal isn’t clear on this point, had probably returned while the school was shuttered. In all, some 217 people were afflicted in April and May in that village. The disease then spread through the countryside; each time, the Typhoid Mary was a victim who had either been at the closed girls’ school or had come in contact with them.

But as in the cases of most psychogenic illness, there was nothing physically wrong with the afflicted. They exhibited no fevers or convulsions, and their blood work produced nothing interesting; theories that they were victims of some kind of psychotropic mold didn’t hold water when it was clear that they had no other symptoms. And, as the medical journal rather unkindly pointed out, “No literate and relatively sophisticated members of society have been attacked.”

3. Dromomania, or Pathological Tourism

Most people like to take a holiday now and again. Some people, however, just can’t stop. Dromomania refers to the uncontrollable urge to travel, a pathological tourism, and it was all the rage in France between 1886 and 1909. The man who exemplified dromomania for the European medical establishment was a gas-fitter from Bordeaux, one Jean-Albert Dadas. Dadas was admitted to the Saint-Andre Hospital in Bordeaux in 1886, after he had just returned from a truly epic journey. He was exhausted, of course, but also confused, vague and foggy—he couldn’t remember where he’d been and what he’d done.

A doctor at the hospital managed to piece together his story and submit it to a medical journal under the charming name, Les aliénés voyageurs, or The Mad Travellers. Dadas’ compulsive traveling allegedly began after he illegally parted company with the French army near Mons in 1881. From there, he went east to Prague, then Berlin, through what was then East Prussia, finally to Moscow. In Moscow, he was arrested—a czar had just been assassinated and Dadas had the misfortune of being mistaken for a member of the nihilist movement responsible—and forced to march back to exile in Turkey. This may have actually suited his particular mental illness just fine. In Constantinople, he was somehow rescued by the French consulate and put on the road to Vienna, where he again took up work as a gas-fitter.

Dadas’ story inspired several other cases of dromomania in France at the time. And if it wasn’t an actual epidemic, in the sense that a large number of people were actually suffering from it, there seemed to be an epidemic about talking about it amongst medical circles. It seemed to die out by around 1909, right around the time the “alienists” (proto-psychologists) started to actively investigate it.

Dadas’ adventure also seemed to take place at a time when the medical community, some driven by pseudo sciences like eugenics, were interested in parsing out all manner of mental illness into discrete manias. Dadas could have also been dealing with a bit of drapetomania, an obsession with running away from home, though he was definitely not suffering from clinomania, a refusal to leave one’s bed. Of course, his dromomania probably would have been much easier on him if he’d also been suffering from cartacoethes, the compulsion to see maps everywhere.

4. Koro, or Genital Retraction Syndrome

Another “culture-bound syndrome,” koro refers to the irrational fear that one’s genitalia is shrinking or retracting into one’s body. And people have suffered it, usually in mass hysteria epidemics, since around 300 BCE. It’s particularly prevalent in Africa and Asia and is usually attended by severe anxiety (unsurprisingly) and fear of impending death, or loss of sexual ability. One of the most recent outbreaks of koro or, as it’s called in Western medical circles, Genital Retraction Syndrome, was in 1967 in Singapore, when more than 1000 men tried to stave off shrinkage using clamps and pegs.

Women have also been victims of the panic, often manifesting the fear that their breasts or nipples are disappearing. However, koro is more likely to strike men and, according to psychologists, more likely to strike men in societies where their worth is determined by their reproductive ability. Psychologists usually blame cultural circumstance, pointing out that epidemics tend to follow periods of social tension or widespread anxiety; Chinese medicine, however, blamed female fox spirits, while in Africa, it was usually considered the result of witchcraft.

5. Motor Hysteria

The Middle Ages were kind of boring, and probably even worse for the sometimes unwilling inhabitants of nunneries. So mewling like cats was one way to pass the time. Historical reports indicate that nunneries were rife with “motor hysteria,” a kind of mass psychogenic illness that had some women exhibiting the signs of demonic possession, others acting out in sexually disturbing ways, and one convent mewling like cats and trying to claw their way up trees.

The period of nuns behaving badly lasted around 300 years, beginning at around 1400, and affected convents across Europe. One of the last was perhaps the most deadly—in 1749, a woman at a convent in Wurzburg, Germany was beheaded on suspicion of being a witch after an episode of mass fainting, foaming at the mouth, and screaming. Usually, however, these episodes ended in someone calling in a priest for some exorcisms.

Waller, he of the investigations into the dancing plagues, also came up with a theory as to what would drive these nuns to distraction: A combination of stress and strong religious tradition of trance and possession.

Women who were sent to nunneries did not always go willingly, and convents, especially starting in the 1400s, were very harsh places. The rigorous devotion to spiritual betterment wasn’t for everyone and the stress and privations these women experienced could sometimes cause them to act out. When they would, it was often with behavior that stereotypically mimicked demonic possession: “They believed implicitly in the possibility of possession and so made themselves susceptible to it,” wrote Waller.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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