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J Nerv Ment Dis. 1994 Jun;182(6):331-8; discussion 339-41.

Disease, disorder, or deception? Latah as habit in a Malay extended family.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.


Thirty-seven cases of latah are examined within the author's Malay extended family (N = 115). Based on ethnographic data collected and a literature review, cases are readily divisible into two broad categories: habitual (N = 33) and performance (N = 4). The first form represents an infrequent, culturally conditioned habit that is occasionally used as a learned coping strategy in the form of a cathartic stress response to sudden startle with limited secondary benefits (i.e., exhibiting brief verbal obscenity with impunity). In this sense, it is identical to Western swearing. Performers are engaged in conscious, ritualized social gain through the purported exploitation of a neurophysiological potential. The latter process is essentially irrelevant, akin to sneezing or yawning. It is concluded that latah is a social construction of Western-trained universalist scientists. The concept of malingering and fraud in anthropology is critically discussed.

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