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J Nerv Ment Dis. 1983 Mar;171(3):159-67.

Paradox lost. The latah problem revisited.


This paper examines the validity of Dr. R. C. Simons' resolution (Simons, R. C. The resolution of the latah paradox. J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., 168: 195-206, 1980) of the so-called latah paradox. Latah, a Malay condition precipitated by sudden fright and involving compulsive obscenity and mimesis, was found to be closely related to local cultural values; yet a paradox seems to arise from the fact that analogous conditions are reported from unrelated cultures. Simons accounts for this by proposing that latah and its kindred states are based on the universal human startle reflex and that latah is merely a culture-specific exploitation of a neurophysiological potential shared by humans and other animals. It is here argued that the evidence does not support such a view and that latah-like conditions are best considered in terms of their local meaning within their societies of origin; ethnographic material from Siberia is examined as a case in point. It is concluded that the "latah paradox" is illusory and that biomedical approaches to the question have seriously misread the nature of the phenomenon and potentially distort clinical practice in relation to it.

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