A short digital ramble

posted by Jason Kottke Dec 05, 2008

I read Cynical-C everyday; the other day I ran across this post about the Dancing Plague of 1518.

The Dancing Plague (or Dancing Epidemic) of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace, France (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and over the period of about one month, most of the people died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Wikipedia is great but I like to dig back into the "primary" sources. A Discovery News article tells of a book called A Time to Dance, a Time to Die whose author says that the dancing was a result of mass hysteria caused by high levels of psychological distress in the community. That article also mentions the Tanganyika laughter epidemic:

The epidemic seems to have started within a small group of students in a boarding school, possibly triggered by a joke. Laughter, as is commonly known, is in some sense contagious, and for whatever reason in this case the laughter perpetuated itself, far transcending its original cause. Since it is physiologically impossible to laugh for much more than a few minutes at a time, the laughter must have made itself known sporadically, though reportedly it was incapacitating when it struck. The school from which the epidemic sprang was shut down; the children and parents transmitted it to the surrounding area. Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off.

That epidemic was covered at length in Radio Lab's Laughter episode from earlier in the year.

But back to the Dancing Plague. That article links to a page on another form of mass hysteria, penis panic.

Genital retraction syndrome (GRS), generally considered a culture-specific syndrome, is a condition in which an individual is overcome with the belief that his/her external genitals — or also, in females, breasts — are retracting into the body, shrinking, or in some male cases, may be imminently removed or disappear. A penis panic is a mass hysteria event or panic in which males in a population suddenly believe they are suffering from genital retraction syndrome.

Which in turn guides us to a 2008 article in Harper's, A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves. George Costanza had a personal case of penis panic in the Seinfeld episode entitled The Hamptons.

George is seen naked by Jerry's girlfriend Rachel, to whom he tries vainly to explain that, having just gotten out of the cold water, he is a victim of penile "shrinkage."

Penis panic put me in mind of a similar phenomenon and after a couple of failed searches — "afraid to pee", "pee in public" — I finally found it: paruresis, aka "pee shyness, shy kidney, bashful bladder, stage fright, urophobia or shy bladder syndrome".

Paruresis [...] is a type of phobia in which the sufferer is unable to urinate in the (real or imaginary) presence of others, such as in a public restroom. It can affect both males and females. The analogous condition that affects bowel movement is called parcopresis.

Paruresis has been referenced in several movies, TV shows, books, and other media.

Stage fright always puts me in mind of this New Yorker article by John Lahr about the phenomenon (subscribers-only version). From there, it's relaxed concentration all the way down, a topic on which I could digitally ramble all day, so let's stop there.

(I took the title of this post from the online excursions that Rosecrans Baldwin conducts for the NY Times' The Moment. Apologies and thanks.)