The Rest of the Truth Behind the Havana Syndrome

Havana Syndrome has not been in the news much lately. That changed a bit on Sunday, September 25, 2022, when CNN broadcast a “documentary” by Dr. Sanjay Gupta titled, “Immaculate Concussion: The Truth Behind Havana Syndrome”. CNN has been an energetic booster of the hypothesis that Havana Syndrome is caused by a Russian-produced and -employed directed-energy weapon, most commonly supposed to be a pulsed microwave weapon. The initial incidents leading to the coining of the term “Havana Syndrome” occurred in 2016. Six years later, no example of a device that could plausibly be identified as a “smoking gun” has been found. It would appear that cases of Havana Syndrome have dwindled to a trickle, and that a definitive explanation for the broad constellation of symptoms that have been reported by those claiming to be victims of Havana Syndrome is no closer today than it was in 2016.

While political and media elites stubbornly cling to the idea that Russia is employing a directed-energy weapon to attack American diplomats and cause brain injuries, many in the public are coming around to the idea that the manifold vague symptoms identified as Havana Syndrome may well be the result of psychological factors. A 2020 book by R. Baloh and R. Bartholomew titled Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria makes the compelling case that the cluster of cases now called “Havana Syndrome” is most likely of social and psychological origin. This viewpoint has begun to spread, and has arguably become a valid explanation competing with the directed-energy weapon hypothesis in the minds of many in the lay public: examples of others arguing for serious consideration of the possibility that Havana Syndrome may be of psychogenic origin may be found on WebMD,, and the New York Times, to name but a few.

Perhaps Dr. Gupta and the researchers at CNN missed all this. On September 22nd, CNN published an advertisement for the then-upcoming program, summarizing the content in 392 words. The words “psychogenic” or “psychological” or any cognates do not appear in this summary. The transcript of the program runs to 7,440 words. The word psychogenic appears twice in the transcript: once when former CIA officer Marc Polymeropolous says in reference to receiving a diagnosis of physical injury: “What they are saying is you’re not making this up, it’s not psychogenic”. Dr. Gupta, describing his interactions with Cuban government officials, says that these Cuban officials raised “quote” psychogenic factors as a plausible explanation for the cases, which Dr. Gupta quickly and finally dismissed as “a controversial conclusion”.

It is worth noting that Mr. Polymeropolous’ statement is rooted in an important error, which Dr. Gupta, who should know better, failed to correct. Equating psychological origin with “making something up” goes a long way in explaining why some of those who self-identify as Havana Syndrome victims are so resistant to entertaining the notion that the symptoms may be psychogenic. It is an incontrovertible fact that symptoms of psychological origin are as real to those experiencing them as symptoms attributed to an organic cause. Unfortunately, the social stigma some attach to what they perceive as an accusation of malingering, or worse, a mental problem, has driven the Havana Syndrome narrative into a dead end from which it may never be extricated: certainly not if CNN has anything to say about it.

Dr. Gupta describes himself as a scientist in this program, though he certainly does not act like one. Scientists who have hypotheses about complex, nuanced, and difficult problems do not suppress, ignore or sweep potentially disconfirming evidence, information, or even speculation under the rug. Instead, they eagerly embrace it, evaluate and assess it, in hope of satisfying themselves that they have fairly considered all alternative explanations. Dr. Gupta hints that perhaps he has chosen to ignore this plausible alternative explanation because it is, he says, “a controversial conclusion”. But truth be told, much of what is presented by the “experts” Dr. Gupta assembled for this program is just as, if not more controversial than the psychogenic hypothesis. Both on the weapon side and the injury side, other “experts” have challenged many of the conclusions presented as if they were uncontroversial facts in this program.

As Havana Syndrome seems to fade from the public scene, perhaps CNN is trying to be the last person in the room, leaving the last word to shape the future narrative. No, we didn’t find the smoking gun, we may never know what really happened, but here’s what Dr. Gupta thinks. It’s the best we’ve got.

Except it isn’t, not by a long shot. I appreciated Dr. Gupta’s advice and counsel during the COVID pandemic, but I will never see him in quite the same light again. It takes a long time to build trust and respect, but only a moment to throw it away.

About the Author
George Mastroianni is an experimental psychologist, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force Academy. He currently teaches in the M.P.S. Psychology of Leadership program in the World Campus at the Pennsylvania State University. His recent books include Of Mind and Murder: Toward a More Comprehensive Psychology of the Holocaust; Misremembering the Holocaust: The Liberation of Buchenwald and the Limits of Memory; and Rumors of Injustice: The Cases of Ilse Koch and Rudolph Spanner. Visit his website
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