What Was the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic?


The great writer Charles Dickens once said that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter” and he is right. Most of us may have been in a situation where a person’s laugh is so hysterical that is causes a chain reaction of laughter that eventually affects the rest of the people in the group. At first, the term laughter epidemic may sound like a nice, happy, fun, and joyful event, but the truth is, a laughter epidemic is not a joke. In fact, it can quickly intensify and become a severe medical condition.

Even if laughter is somewhat considered as a natural form of medicine and it has been used as a therapeutic tool for several years, there are still some negative aspects in laughter. Laughing excessively can lead to extreme elation, cataplexy, and unpleasant laughter spells. That is why the laughter epidemic that happened in Tanzania in 1962 where over a thousand people laughed hysterically for over a year is not a laughing joke. Let’s take a look at how and why this mass hysteria happened.

How Did the Laughter Epidemic Start?

A strange phenomenon that we now know as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic started on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls. It has been reported that the laughing started with three girls and it spread chaotically throughout the boarding school. At first, it affected 95 of their 159 pupils and these pupils were aged 12 to 18 years old. The symptom lasted from a few hours to a total of 16 days in those affected by the epidemic. The faculty of the school was not affected but they said that their students had a hard time concentrating on their lessons because of the laughter epidemic. This phenomenon forced the school to close down in March 1962.

After the school was closed down and the students were sent home to their parents, the laughing epidemic started to spread in Nshamba, a village where several of the girls from the school lived. Almost 217 people from the village had laughing attacks in April and May of 1962 and most of the victims were school children and young adults. The laughter epidemic spread further from Kashasha to the village of Nshamba, through a school near Bukoba and even on the borders of the country which was known as Tanganyika back then.

People who were affected of the laughing epidemic experienced symptoms such as recurring attacks of laughing, crying, flatulence, fainting, pain, rashes, and respiratory problems which were accompanied by occasional violence, restlessness, and aimless running. The laughing epidemic lasted for a good eighteen months after it eventually died off. Up to this day, no one still knows why the laughing epidemic started or what made it stop. But as usual, people have their theories.

Theories Behind the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

A professor from Purdue University named Charles F. Hempelmann has theorized that the laughing epidemic was stress-induced. Because back in 1962, the country of Tanganyika just gained their independence and students said that they are feeling stressed because of high expectations from their parents and teachers.

While psychology professor Robert Provine had another theory where he said that the laughter was a sort of social glue and the laughter epidemic that happened in Tanganyika was a dramatic example of the power of infectious laughter. While Provine’s theory that laughing can become infectious, a few (or maybe none of us) have experienced the contagious laughs so severe just like what happened in Tanganyika.

Other theories state that the Tanganyika laughter epidemic is probably a culturally determined disease. Because of the high population in Africa, schools in their area are more prone to outbreaks of mass motor hysteria.  

No one knows exactly how the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic began and the truth behind it remains lost in the shadow of history. In fact, the name of the three girls who started the epidemic was not even written on the record. Different reports and news tell us how long the epidemic actually lasted, how many people were involved, and what is the cause of their contagious laughter.

Possible Causes

Possible Causes

One of the strangest and most puzzling instances of mass hysteria in recorded history was the Tanganyika laughing pandemic, which struck in 1962 in what Tanzania is now. To understand the origin of the pandemic, scientists have put up a number of ideas, including:

Mass hysteria

Mass hysteria is one of the most often accepted theories for the Tanganyika laughing pandemic. This happens when a group of people begins exhibiting inexplicable symptoms with no obvious medical explanation, usually in a high-stress setting. It’s probable that the Tanganyika laughing pandemic was brought on by widespread hysteria brought on by stress, worry, or other circumstances.

Contagious laughter

This may also be a contributing factor to the Tanganyika laughing pandemic. It’s a psychological phenomenon where people begin to laugh uncontrollably when they hear someone else laugh. It is probable that the original group of kids’ laughing proved contagious, encouraging further pupils to join in and eventually causing it to spread across the school and into the nearby villages.

Environmental factors

There may have been an environmental component to the Tanganyika laughing pandemic. According to one explanation, a poisonous fungus may have infected local grain or other food supplies, leading to hallucinations and other symptoms. However, there is no proof to back up this idea.

Cultural influences

The Tanganyika laughing pandemic may have been influenced by cultural influences. It is possible, for instance, that laughing served as a social release or a coping strategy for stress or other stresses on the mind.

Overall, despite the fact that a number of explanations have been put out to explain the origin of the Tanganyika laughing pandemic, none of them have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Even now, the epidemic continues to be a fascinating and enigmatic event that fascinates scientists and scholars.

What widespread perception exists of the events that took place in Tanganyika in 1962?

It all began at a little boarding school in the African town of Kashasha, which is now part of Tanzania. A small number of students first started laughing, maybe in response to a joke. Eventually, the laughing spread across the entire school. People accept this on its face. It starts with one person laughing, then it spreads like an avalanche to other people. Parents began giggling as they picked up their kids from school. It then spread to further settlements, and so on. The laughing a global epidemic lasted anywhere from six months to a year and a half. The first account of the incident has been embellished and misquoted.

Sounds enjoyable but is untrue. Even so, is this possible?

No. They went a year without laughing nonstop. People disregard the anatomy of laughing. Since laughing puts such a burden on breathing, no one can laugh for more than 20 seconds. Have you ever laughed so hard it starts to hurt? Simply put, you cannot continue to do so. Because it is impossible for one person to laugh for more than a minute, it is also impossible for a whole population to laugh for a year.

A myth?

Tanganyika did experience a certain event. The bad news is that there was no comedy involved. No one was having fun. One of the numerous symptoms was laughter.

These individuals had signs of anxiousness, including aches, fainting spells, respiratory issues, and even rashes. Both laughing and sobbing episodes occurred.

The episode did endure for almost a year, however, it did so intermittently rather than continuously. It extended to a few further schools and a different community. The institution did shut down. Though the precise number is unknown, it was probably in the range of several thousand.


Can anything similar occur again?

More often than you may imagine. When people find themselves in a difficult circumstance and lack the means to escape it, it typically begins at school or at work.

Tanganyika has just attained independence in 1962. The young people in question admitted that the heightened expectations of their parents and instructors were stressing them out. It is a frequent event that might be expensive if it happens at your place of business since it could have to be shut down. This incident occurred in Lafayette, Indiana, a few years ago. To console those who were affected, they will have the area sprayed. People will claim that there were several insects there and that we were all stung. They refuse to acknowledge the panic.

Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI)

The signs of the laughing pandemic appeared in a variety of forms, including elements of worry and mass hysteria. Unlike normal laughter, an attack resulted in debilitating consequences. These included outbursts of sobbing and yelling, as well as fainting and rashes. The respiratory system gets a tremendous workout from laughing as well. As a result, respiratory issues are very frequently reported.

Mass hysteria in 1962 was the cause of the laughing. Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) has replaced the term “mass hysteria.” MPI often happens when individuals involved experience shared stress.

Understanding the phenomena

We will never know whether those afflicted by the 1962 laughing pandemic laughed because they were motivated to do so or because they were under the influence of mass hysteria, or whether the circumstances even met the criteria for an epidemic. Even still, it is intriguing to contemplate what modern psychology may be taught from such historical occurrences. The most significant lesson is that because individuals are social beings who are readily influenced by the behavior of others, it is crucial to surround oneself with sources of influence that promote rather than jeopardize your wellbeing.

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