img: Allan H Frey

havana syndrome causes cia officers to hear sounds beamed into their brains from microwave guns operated by enemy spies. it's all backed-up by fifty-year-old research. bad research. bad, scant research.  

original articles: Frey, 1962 (Journal of Applied Physiology), Lin & , Wang, 2007 (Health Physics), Lubner et al., 2020 (Frontiers in Neurology), reported in: The BBC by Gordon Corera on 9th September 2021 & The Washington Post by Andrea RodrÍguez on 13th September 2021 image source

this story was in episode 17 #microwave #sound #pressure #hearing

the error bar says

the BBC & Washington Post examine the case of Havana Syndrome - the unusual symptoms reported by officers of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (or 'spooks') working in Cuba in 2016.

people affected by Havana Syndrome report a variety of acoustic & other bodily symptoms such as buzzing or piercing squeals in their ears. some are affected for months. it's now a top security issue.

but what causes it? the BBC turned to James Lin, an Emeritus Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago. during his research career, Lin studied electromagnetic radiation including wireless signals & microwaves, but - and this may turn out to be important - not human sound perception.

while no explanation of Havana Syndrome has yet been found & the Washington Post states that some theories even break the laws of physics, the BBC is undeterred in supporting Lin's claim that these so-called "sonic attacks" are in fact caused by microwaves, pulsed at the heads of spies from a distance.

citing evidence from the 1960s & 1970s, Professor Lin explains that microwaves pulsed behind a person's head lead to them experience clicks, buzzes & pings similar to those of people suffering Havana Syndrome. one proposed mechanism is that the microwaves heat up the surface of the brain - by one ten thousandth of a degree - & this heating creates a thermo-acoustic-elastic pressure wave that travels into the head to stimulate the cochlea & nerves for hearing.

is this the spy who cooked me?

i don't think so.

i wanted this story to be true & it is at least plausible. much of my own research uses powerful electromagnets to stimulate the brain directly & measure the effects on perception & behaviour.

stimulating the brain with a magnet about 20000 times as powerful as the earth's magnetic field for a thousandth of a second, can, if done precisely, make people see flashes of light similar to the 'stars' that appear around cartoon characters' heads after head injuries.

it *should* also be possible to make people feel touches or hear sounds by stimulating their brain electromagnetically. but i don't think we've done that convincingly yet. my experience of this method, using very powerful electromagnets, is that it's really difficult indeed to have any reliable effect at all on people's perception. when a very powerful magnet is right ON the head.

could an enemy agent, operating a powerful microwave gun affect the brains of people inside a distant building? maybe. as i read more, i wanted to believe that the truth was out there.


so i checked the original research.

in 1962, Allan Frey claimed to make both healthy & deaf people perceive sounds by firing microwaves at them. he described the rays as 'extremely low power,' & presented them hundreds of feet away from the person.

the curious thing is that, while apparently-normal-looking audiograms are presented in these papers (an audiogram is the graphical result of a basic hearing test showing which frequencies people can hear), there are almost no details about how the people's hearing was tested, what was the experimental method used, what control conditions were done & how exactly did they exclude the possibility of 'placebo' effects or biases in their reports.

there is a wonderful picture of the effective area for optimal brain stimulation to occur (it's just in front of the ears, shown in the episode image) but no details are given about how this image was created or what it is supposed to show.

i looked at five papers published between 1962 & 1975. frustratingly little detail was given. each paper built on or discussed the previous one, regardless whether it was published in the prestigious Science journal or some obscure academic microwave fanzine.

the physicists & engineers quibbled over the possible mechanisms for the 'well-established' phenomenon of microwave-induced-hearing, testing models as simple as crumpled aluminium foil & as complex as the dissected nerves & brains of cats. but they didn't seem to ask: is this real?


fifty years ago, some non-psychologists asked an interesting psychological question - can humans hear microwave pulses from a distance? the questions were asked badly; the answers were also bad. there's nothing to see & less to hear, here.


The BBC: fudge - scientific story distorted

The Washington Post: fair - scientific story mostly intact