What Is Latah?

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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2014
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Latah is a medical condition in which sufferers have an unusual response when their startle reflex is triggered. Many of them seem to enter a type of trance characterized by repetitive movements and sounds. Latah is known as a culture-specific or culture-bound syndrome. This means that it is recognizable only in certain cultures or areas. In this case, latah is usually only present in the countries of Southeast Asia.

To understand latah, it helps to understand a little about the human startle reflex. Everyone has a startle reflex that causes us to react to certain unexpected stimuli. When the startle reflex is triggered, the body reacts a certain way. Many people will jump and possibly yell, and their blood pressure and heart rate will go up for at least a few seconds.

Latah sufferers, most of whom are women, react very differently when startled. When latah patients' startle reflexes are triggered, many observers say that they seem to enter a trance. Most will begin to repeat certain words, gestures, or phrases.


A latah is usually echophraxic and echolalic. Echophraxia is when a person copies the movements of those around her, while echolalia occurs when a person copies the speech of those around her. Both of these conditions are considered to be completely involuntary, meaning that the sufferer can not stop herself from doing it. Those who study latah believe that sufferers of this condition truly don't realize what they are doing. Most of them have no recollection of what they did during these episodes, so they are not usually held accountable for what they did.

In many areas where this condition is present, a latah sufferer is often accepted or even embraced in the community. It is not uncommon for Malaysian village members to purposely provoke someone suffering from latah. The reaction seems to provide entertainment, and rib poking and other shenanigans at the expense of latah patients.

Culture-specific syndromes are very controversial and rare disorders. Sufferers of these types of disorders don't usually have anything physically wrong with them, but they still exhibit both mental and physical symptoms. Many scientists now believe that these disorders are not caused by anything physical, but they manifest based on what is acceptable and unacceptable in a certain culture.

Other culture-specific syndromes present in Southeast Asian societies include amok and koro. Individuals with amok have been known to fly into violent and unexpected rages, sometimes seriously injuring or even killing others in their paths. Koro is characterized by the belief that one's sex organ is shrinking and will eventually disappear. Severe self-mutilation to prevent this from happening is not uncommon.


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