Pibloktoq: Psychology in the Arctic


Pibloktoq is a psychological phenomenon associated with the cold, dark, snowy parts of the world. The first written case studies happened to Inuit people, but it's not actually limited to them. When someone suffers an episode of pibloktoq, she (it apparently usually happens to women) will scream, flail, and often strip off clothing and take off running. But within a couple hours she calms down, even falling asleep. Afterwards, she goes back to normal and may never have another attack of pibloktoq again. At the Providentia blog, psychologist Romeo Vitelli writes about the history of pibloktoq, the way it was used as part of racist and sexist narratives in the past, and how scientists interpret it today.

Since pibloktoq is most common during long Arctic nights, Inuit tradition holds that it is caused by evil spirits possessing the living. Shamanism and animism are dominant themes in Inuit traditional beliefs with the angakkuk (healer) acting as a mediator with the various supernatural forces. Considering angakkuit used trance states to communicate with spirits and carry out faith healing, there is a longstanding view among Inuit that individuals entering trance states be treated with respect given the possibility of a new "revelation" emerging as a result. For that reason, treatment with pibloktoq cases usually involved simply allowing the episode to run its course without interference. While pibloktoq can often be confused with other conditions (including epilepsy) in which failure to intervene can lead to the victim coming to harm, most cases tend to be more typical.

Although Brill classified pibloktoq as a hysteria (since women were the most common victims), later authors have argued that it is a form of primitive dissociation or, perhaps, an acute psychotic reaction with multiple possible causes that can include epilepsy or depression. A more recent author has suggested that pibloktoq may be linked to an overdose of vitamin A considering that humans and animals suffering from hypervitaminosis A can show many of the same symptoms as a pibloktoq episode.

This is really interesting. But I was also surprised that this article didn't also bring up paradoxical undressing—a symptom of hypothermia that can cause symptoms similar, in some ways, to the ones associated with pibloktoq.

Via Vaughan Bell

Image: Arctic Ice Bergs, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from polarphotos's photostream