Miryachit, the Mysterious Siberian Mental Disorder

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You know how kids will "copy" one another just to be annoying? This usually leads to whines of protestation: "Mom! Tell Jimmy to quit copying me!" Well, if Jimmy were a Siberian Russian around the turn of the last century, chances are he would've been diagnosed with Miryachit -- a bizarre condition the description of which I recently stumbled across.

The only definitive article on the subject of miryachit seems to have been written by a 19th century surgeon named William Hammond, who based his theories on a report written by the captain of a Navy ship sailing past Siberia to Europe in the summer of 1882. I've heard about some strange psychological disorders, but I've never heard of anything like miryachit. What follows is a pitiful account of a Siberian ship's steward being tormented by his crewmates in what amounts to the opposite of the "make him quit copying me!" scenario:

It seemed that he was afflicted with a peculiar mental or nervous disease, which forced him to imitate everything suddenly presented to his senses. Thus, when the captain slapped the paddle-box suddenly in the presence of the steward, the latter instantly gave it a similar thump; or, if any noise were made suddenly, he seemed compelled against his will to imitate it instantly, and with remarkable accuracy. To annoy him, some of the passengers imitated pigs grunting, or called out absurd names; others clapped their hands and shouted, jumped, or threw their hats on the deck suddenly, and the poor steward, suddenly startled, would echo them all precisely, and sometimes several consecutively. Frequently he would expostulate, begging people not to startle him, and again would grow furiously angry, but even in the midst of his passion he would helplessly imitate some ridiculous shout or motion directed at him by his pitiless tormenters. Frequently he shut himself up in his pantry, which was without windows, and locked the door, but even there he could be heard answering the grunts, shouts, or pounds on the bulkhead outside. He was a man of middle age, fair physique, rather intelligent in facial expression, and without the slightest indication in appearance of his disability.

"We afterward witnessed an incident which illustrated the extent of his disability. The captain of the steamer, running up to him, suddenly clapping his hands at the same time, accidentally slipped and fell hard on the deck; without having been touched by the captain, the steward instantly clapped his bands and shouted, and then, in powerless imitation, he too fell as hard and almost precisely in the same manner and position as the captain.

More fascinating still, it seems that this particular condition is (or was) widely known in Siberia, and yet had rarely if ever been seen outside of it.

In speaking of the steward's disorder, the captain of the general staff stated that it was not uncommon in Siberia; that he had seen a number of cases of it, and that it was commonest about Yakutsk, where the winter cold is extreme. Both sexes were subject to it, but men much less than women. It was known to Russians by the name of 'miryachit.'"

Other reports of the era compare miryachit to a similar condition noted in Java, called "Lata," and to a condition peculiar to a group known as "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," which "was characterized by a marked and violent jump in response to sudden noise or startle." But I can't find anything debunking or really expanding on the condition -- or very much written about it at all after the turn of the 20th century -- and it makes me wonder, A) how many other "regional" diseases/disorders might be out there, and B) how many other bizarre conditions were described a century or more ago without anyone ever bothering to follow up?

In any case, the mind is a strange place, and the science of the mind is -- I think it goes without saying -- far from settled.

February 11, 2010 - 2:06am
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