By Robert Bartholomew

Robert Bartholomew takes apart the theory US and Canadian diplomats were the target of a mysterious new weapon in Cuba and lays out a much more likely explanation.

Havana Syndrome – the mysterious affliction affecting US diplomats and intelligence officers since 2016 – continues to stir up controversy in America.  Some Canadian diplomats were also affected. In the latest report on the syndrome, released in January 2022, a panel of CIA advisors says that a few of the more than 1000 cases may have been caused by a microwave weapon.

The problem is, while news outlets continue to claim the diplomats in Cuba suffered brain damage, the studies used to make the claim have serious flaws.

Brain changes reported in the Havana patients are consistent with findings one would expect to see in people exposed to prolonged stress. The study in question is a 2019 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found brain anomalies. However, brain anomalies are not the same as brain damage. There is a big difference between the two.  Brain anomalies are common in small cohorts such as those studied in Cuba – and the study itself admitted that the anomalies were so minor as to have been potentially caused by individual variation. What’s more, 12 of those affected had pre-existing histories of concussion, compared to none in the healthy controls. That alone could explain the differences in the groups.

As for the other symptoms of ‘Havana Syndrome,’ they are so vague as to be experienced by just about every human who has ever lived, in any given week of their life. They include headache, nausea, dizziness and difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, insomnia, ear pair and pressure, tinnitus, balance problems and disorientation, among others.

Pesticides and sonic weapons

The first explanation given for the symptoms was that of a sonic attack involving sound waves. The problem with this explanation is that targeting the victims inside a large building would defy the laws of physics given the energy in sound waves would quickly dissipate and could not selectively damage the brain. While loud noise could damage hearing, none of the victims developed hearing loss, contrary to media reports.

Then came the pesticide explanation. However, there is no neurotoxin in the world that only affects US and Canadian diplomats in Havana and their families. It also cannot explain why non-diplomats working in the embassies were unaffected. Lastly, the symptoms were not consistent with acute insecticide poisoning.


In 2018 a secret panel of expert scientists found the microwaves explanation to be far-fetched. Firstly, microwaves would interfere with electronics, knock out WiFi, shut down computers, etc. (none of which was reported in Cuba or globally). Of the firs 21 victims in Cuba, eight recorded the sounds accompanying their ‘attacks’. These sounds could not have been microwaves because they cannot be recorded with audio equipment. The microwaves stimulate a nerve in the ear and create the perception of a barely discernible clicking sound. An analysis of the recordings by a group of specialist scientists concluded that they were the mating calls of crickets. Curiously, that report was kept classified until recently.  Within the past decade, the prestigious science journal Nature published a review on the progress with microwave weapons. It concluded that despite five decades of research on microwaves, the American military has yet to produce a usable weapon.” Why? Because there is something called the laws of physics.

Mass Psychogenic Illness

If you remove the claims of brain damage and hearing loss (which were never documented), you are left with viable explanation – mass psychology. Of course, not all of the affected diplomats in Cuba were suffering from psychogenic illness. Some victims were simply redefining a laundry list of vague symptoms under a new label – ‘Havana Syndrome.’  Some almost certainly had other illnesses.

The first victims worked in a small CIA unit in Havana and had been hearing mysterious sounds outside their homes in the evening.  After several weeks passed, one of the officers experienced headache and ear pain and became convinced that they were the result of the mysterious sounds. Once word of the ‘attacks’ spread to his work colleagues and then the American and Canadian Embassies (which shared intelligence), diplomats at both embassies were hearing strange sounds and feeling unwell. Mass psychogenic illness is known to follow social networks. Outbreaks commonly begin in a small, cohesive unit and spreads outward, starting with people of higher status – exactly the situation in Cuba.

Ask yourself – what is the more likely? That the diplomats were the target of a mysterious new weapon for which there is no evidence and the use of which defies the laws of physics; or they were suffering from mass psychogenic illness – a well-documented condition that has been described in the scientific literature for millennia?

Commonsense and the preponderance of evidence dictate the latter.

This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

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