The Revisionist Strikes Back: How Bad Ideas Turn Good

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We’re at a bar filled with woody notes, yellow lights, and people who lie and say Jägerbombs taste good. I’m spewing nonsense at my friend Kevin — he’s Japanese, with a stocky build and a lively, dog-like energy.

Then — within a blink — I remember something. It’s something weird, and it happened fifty-five years ago.

I quickly scroll through Wikipedia.

I tell him a story.

. . .

 

It is 1962. There’s a few girls in a little boarding school in the village of Kashasha, Tanzania — then known as Tanganyika. A board is in the front, seats line the room, and the students peer forward.

It happens.

A joke, trailed by a single giggle. The giggle bubbles into a laugh. Then, it hits the classroom like a slap in the face from an ex-girlfriend.

Suddenly he’s laughing, she’s laughing, and the teacher’s laughing. It’s innocent and it’s fun.

But a few minutes zip by, and the cacophony of snorts and chortles thicken like a stew. Laughs start compounding upon each other. An hour passes. Then, two. Yet, the laughing still — still! — doesn’t stop.

It’s been four hours.

I know what you’re thinking: Did someone tell the greatest joke of all time? Are these children going insane? What color is Kevin’s underwear?

I have no idea.

But imagine you’re there. A couple hours pass. You now feel like you are drowning in air. It is continuous, like a stream. Your parents glance over to you when you come home. And then they start giggling. Shit.

The sun dips into the earth, and still, you’re a cyclical refrain of wheezing, crying, and laughing and you do this into the night.

One person sees someone from the neighboring villages of Nshamba, and another from the neighboring village of Bukobo. Their vocal chords light up like firecrackers.

Sixteen days pass, but the laughing does not stop. On March 18th, 1962, your school closes down. You stay at home while laughing into oblivion, while your parents — without missing a beat — supply an even steadier supply of giggles, snorts, chortles, and guffaws.

The school of Kashaka is sued. A total of fourteen schools from the neighboring villages shut down, and roughly one thousand people are affected.

This is what happened in 1962, and it lasted anywhere from six months to a year and a half.

. . .

 

I finish telling the story, quickly spilling a few more facts¹ as I see them pour into my phone. I don’t remember what Kevin said, but it was something to the tune of that’s fucking insane, but with the inflection of someone typing in all caps and struggling to understand the 9th dimension.

We stick around the bar for awhile longer. Then, after we round up the others, we scurry home.

But there’s something I didn’t tell you. And it’s a dilemma that our ideas — the ones that course correct our lives and the ones we hold onto so dearly — all face.

The story I told Kevin was wrong.

 

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Christian Hempelmann has a problem.

He is bookish with a head of golden hair, and his voice is spiced with German. He is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University and his dissertation was on (wait for it) the phonology of puns.

Unsurprisingly, Hempelmann looks at humor and laughter the same way you looked at frogs in your biology class — which is to say, he dissects humor. But the difference is this: he does it with the precision of a surgeon. If you want to understand laughter, then, it makes sense to talk to someone as well-versed as Hempelmann.

His problem starts with another reporter’s take²:

“The giggling gathered pace and soon the whole class was merry. Teachers were tickled by this spontaneous, joyful outburst and joined in. Soon the whole school was swimming in a tide of laughter. Word spread to the village, and when mothers came to collect their children they too became dizzy with laughter and chuckles of delight.”

And another report of the epidemic, this time from a researcher²:

“This plague of laughter spread through villages ‘like a prairie fire’ forcing the temporary closing of more than 14 schools and afflicting about 1,000 people…”

You read this, and you get an image. And the image — at least, on the surface — seems simple. Something happened in 1962. It was fun, it was a case of ‘contagious laughter’, and it lasted for a year and a half. It’s easy to read this and think: case closed.

But this story isn’t simple.

For example, let’s say I told you to imagine a googol dollars (that’s a one with a hundred zeros trailing it). Your brain would, naturally, start melting. Because conceptually, that number doesn’t make any sense. Your mind will produce something (say, the image of an amusement park filled with money) and that production will have nothing to do with what a googol dollars actually looks like. Your brain — the most complicated device the universe has ever known — will completely fail the simulation.

Now imagine an actual person laughing for a year and a half. Seriously: crawl inside their head, and imagine that reality.

Does it feel like your head is about to split in half? Are you drawing a blank? Are you having a heart attack?

Well, that’s your thinking at work (unless it’s the third option).

To make it simple: your brain is telling you that maybe (maybe) something’s off. And when you look at the physiology of laughter, a different story appears.

To demonstrate the science, let’s just say you have a friend named Wilbert Wallop. He’s overweight, with black hair, a crooked nose, and a salt and pepper beard. Then he starts laughing. Immediately, his diaphragm, his abdominal muscles, and his rib cage try to keep up. But generally — and here’s the key point — the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles and the rib cage are not active in the breathing cycle³. They’re like undertrained, underfed P.E. students forced to play high-school varsity when the coach steps in. Anytime you laugh and do it for long, you’re employing muscles that aren’t used to being employed.

Wilbert Wallop feels inside him a pain. And it’s a pain you’re very familiar with. It’s that feeling that happens when you laugh too hard and half of you just wants God to end it and have mercy on your soul.

Now imagine the people of Tanganyika. Imagine them laughing for a year and a half. If we’re keeping this analogy, it’s like this: their insides are like undertrained, underfed athletes forced to play in the Olympics, not in high school varsityBut how many undertrained, underfed P.E. students will you find at the Olympics? Probably zero.

This picture doesn’t make sense. It’s beautifully framed on the wall, but it’s strange enough to where you notice something: none of it looks real.

And that is precisely Hempelmann’s problem. In 2007, he publishes a paper on the laughter epidemic of Tanganyika³. And if you read it, there’s one thing you’ll be certain of.

No one — not a living soul, not a song bird, not a wild flamingo, not your grandmother, and definitely not a village in Africa — can laugh for a year and a half. So the question is this: what’s going on here?

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There’s no single epidemic that makes me go: man, I wish I was there. But when a reporter writes that the “giggling gathered pace and soon the whole class was merry,” it paints an image³. When you throw in words like ‘merry’, ‘delight’, ‘joyful’, and ‘chuckles’, the image gets even clearer.

These kids were having the time of their lives. If I was a journalist, this would make sense. It clicks.

But if you’ve lived for more than, say, sixteen years, you’ll know this: most of us, at one point or another, have clicked with ideas that are wrong. Ideas that — if you followed them down a yellow brick road — would make the sum of your life worse, not better. We tend to hear an idea (from the radio or from a parent or from an essay) and it clicks with our intuitions⁴. It sounds right. Our gut says, ah, I knew gluten-free coconut water destroyed my childhood all along.

We use hunch and ideology to pick up new ideas because they ‘stick’ in the playground of the mind. Our gut says “yes!”, and like an unknown guest, in comes the idea.

Except, the guest stays a few months. He puts his feet on the living room table, his socks smell, and he swears at your wife. Only later — sometimes much later — do you realize he’s a bad guest.

That’s to say, he’s a bad idea. But sometimes, you can’t tell. When I was sixteen, I thought I was invincible (like most teenagers) and I thought that my ideas had a kind of peerless majesty to them.

I was filled with what author Ryan Holiday would call ego⁵. Of course, it was precisely that ego that kept me in a storm of my own warped ideas. Being trapped in that storm was like being in the middle of a hurricane — in the eye, it’s impossible to tell whether you’re safe or not.

Fortunately, years have passed since I was sixteen (and seemingly impervious to car accidents), but with each passing year, more ideas have been reverted and revised and revisited — especially the ones I thought I already knew well enough.

And that’s the point — the ones you know well enough, can be the ones that surprise you. You just have to look.

Hempelmann digs up Rankin and Phillip’s original report of the epidemic⁶. It is important, because it is a document that — when you talk about the laughter epidemic of 1962 — matters.

Rankin and Phillip are the first ones to hit the scene in Tanganyika, and they write a report about it. Their report is quantitatively specific, but most importantly, it’s qualitatively cautious. They write:

“The disease commenced on 30th Janurary, 1962, at a mission-run girls’ school at Kashaska village, 25 miles from Bukoba […] when three pupils commenced to act in an abnormal manner. From that date until the 18th March, 1962, when the school was forced to close down, 95 of the 159 pupils had been affected. Fifty-seven pupils were involved from the 21st May, when the school was reopened, until it was again shut at the end of June”

Understand: Rankin and Phillip are the real deal. The report was published in 1963. The epidemic started in 1962. They were basically there.

When you read it, like Hempelmann did, things line up differently. In fact, what’s striking about Rankin and Phillip’s report is that it completely changes the conversation. It’s like walking into a rom-com, and without warning, the charming guy in the first frame gets brutally murdered by Freddy Krueger. You’re confused. You’re puzzled. You have no idea what just happened.

But that’s what so exciting. Certainly, when you think of this epidemic, it makes sense to think that if you’re laughing, you must be having fun, right? Because, in the mind, laughing and sadness don’t mix. It’s like subtracting and then — holy shit — the number is higher. It just does not compute.

But, when you start to read Rankin and Phillip’s report, a different image appears. There is no party. And this image is filled with, as Hempelmann notes, “despair and confusion”. Rankin and Phillip write:

“The onset is sudden, with attacks of laughing and crying lasting for a few minutes to a few hours, followed by a respite and then a recurrence. The attack is accompanied by restlessness and on occasions violence when restraint is attempted. The patient may say that things are moving around in the head and that she fears that someone is running after her.”

Later in the report:

“At the time of writing this paper the disease is spreading to other villages, the education of the children is being seriously interfered with and there is considerable fear among the village communities.”

Allow that to sink in: considerable fear.

When you try to throw a party, you don’t think: we need paper plates, pizza, and considerable fear. No — the people of Tanganyika were feeling something different than what we thought they felt.

The truth is that they were terrified. But this can teach us something.

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It was 1961, and Tanganyika had it’s hands on a shiny new toy called independence. The election for a new president was held in ‘62, and Julius Nyerere, the incumbent, raked in a dazzling 98.15% of the votes⁷. The British were gone. They had gotten what they wanted.

So what went so disastrously wrong?

The epidemic of 1962 is the story of something that simply does not make sense. The journalists and scientists, with written report in hand, have explanations. They tell us what happened. It gets repeated and repeated and repeated, written down a long line of messengers and storytellers and researchers who, I hope, are doing their best.

But somewhere along this game of telephone, we start making things up. The facts are handled like bad cargo. At some point, what happened in 1962 doesn’t look like what happened in 1962.

The picture is tilted, the frame is off, the colors are muted.

Hempelmann, in 2007, publishes a paper. That paper gives us an image — it’s a gutsy revision of all the reports that came before it. He’s saying, look, there’s bits of fact and there’s bit of non-fact, and I’m here to sort the mess out. So, he sorts the mess out. He arrives at an image of what happened in 1962, the best he can. And after years and years and years of a story being passed down the line untouched, Hempelmann dares to correct.

And that is what is so beautiful and difficult about revision — it takes a very specific type of gusto to do it. Steven Pinker, author and cognitive scientist, writes in A Sense of Style:

“I am told there are writers who can tap out a coherent essay in a single pass, at most checking for typos and touching up the punctuation before sending it off for publication. You are probably not one of them. Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.”

Here’s my favorite line:

“Too many things have to go right in a passage of writing for most mortals to get them all the first time.”

Writing is unnatural. It’s hard, it’s finicky, and spilling words onto the page is not as easy as spilling words out of your mouth. But — to get around that problem — you revise. It’s the cantankerous part of the process where you go over the work, again and again and again, until your eyes bleed and you start questioning if any just God would allow you to do this.

It’s fueled by self-doubt and a high standard — does using the word ‘grandiloquent’ make me sound confident or more like an asshole? Is this paragraph about how I cried at soccer camp too self-indulgent or does it have just the right amount of crying at soccer camp?

If you’re like most, you know this. You know that people who produce music, television, books, and academic work go back and brutalize their work like a crazy 24-year old in a Youtube comments section.

But where this isn’t obvious, is in a different domain. Arguably, a domain with greater stakes and grander complications. And it is the domain of ideas.

The story of 1962 is valuable, because it starts with a report that multiplies into written accounts and verbal retellings. Ideas of all stripes — from timeless clichés to counterintuitive insights — all get this treatment. Ideas are spread through mouths and pens and ears and eyes. They go from human to human to human, like a long line of telephone. But if you’ve played telephone, you know how the game ends.

The story of 1962 is the same. After years of telling the story, there’s sneaky little assumptions that undermine the actual story of what happened. It’s the pose of the sixteen-year-old, albeit here, more understandable: everyone believes the facts of the story are set. Everything here is correct. Move along now!

But Hempelmann, being the researcher he is, says no. He goes back, and he writes, and the fruit of that labor is a paper published in 2007. He sets the record straight, and the ideas prosper.

Yet, dissecting a story that happened fifty-five years ago is one thing. Getting the ideas right in your own head is quite another, isn’t it?

Because in many ways, our ideas — like sherpas — guide us up the mountain. Whether those ideas are about how relationships work or about how careers work or about how happiness works, unconscious or not, they’re in your head.

But, if you’re starting to get the gist, the next questions are obvious: have you vetted your sherpas? Do they know where they’re going? Are they relevant? Are they sane? Are they good? At the very least, did you go on Trip Advisor and check the reviews?

Because, chances are, if you haven’t looked at your ideas deeply, you have bad sherpas, prancing around your head, telling you to go jump off a cliff.

The truth is, ideas are profound because they move us in profound ways. If you deeply believe that friends are a necessity, you’ll come back from work at five thirty and grab a beer. If you believe that money is a priority (which, context-wise, might actually be the case), you’ll stay at the office till eight, cancel your plans, and feel differently about it than if you believed otherwise. Those two examples are examples of two separate philosophies, both moving you in two very different directions. These ideas fidget with our lives in ways we see and ways we don’t, and these actions compound, like interest. If we think about meaning and love differently than our friends, the product of our life will form a different whole than the people around us. This could be good; this could be bad. But it really depends on what you think.

The problem, then, is that when we have an idea lodged in our head, we revert back to our sixteen-year old self. And our sixteen-year old self is dangerous. He doesn’t think car accidents can kill him, and he thinks all of his ideas are right. And when you think everything you know is set in stone like the Ten Commandments, you don’t revise. You don’t have self-doubt. You simply keep the bad idea, lodged in your head, until you die. Bad ideas — harmless or critical — go unnoticed like a quiet burglar into the night.

There were a lot of things that went unnoticed in the laughter epidemic of 1962. In fact, there are too many to list here. But Hemplemann, in his paper, dissects each and every one³. With each reveal, he talks about the details and the assumptions that got played with the wrong fiddle. Hempelmann, when asked by Simone Sebastian at the Chicago Tribune, puts it clearly⁸:

“Something did happen in Tanganyika. The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms.
These people were showing anxiety-related symptoms, from pain, to fainting, to respiratory problems, and sometimes people get rashes. There were attacks of crying as well as laughing.
The incident did last for about a year, but it occurred in relapses, not constantly. It spread to a couple of other schools and another village. The school did close down. You can’t know exactly how many people were affected, but it was around several thousand.”

If you read the paper, you’ll start to understand that it wasn’t a symphony of laughter and joy and people high fiving their wives on the street. Instead, it was a flood of anxiety that started with three girls in a boarding school. The girls start acting strange, and then, that strangeness spreads. People thought it was laughter. But what they missed was that it was everything.

The Tanganyika laughter epidemic isn’t about the contagiousness of laughter. Hempelmann critiques that assumption — the assumption that the reporters and journalists and researchers (and me, in that bar⁹) all made. Hempelmann — along with Rankin and Phillip’s 1963 report — believe something else. When asked by Simone Sebastian at the Tribune, Hempelmann is direct:

“It’s called mass hysteria. This is when a certain behavior is observed in a group of people that is not related to a certain environmental stimulus. There is no specific cause.
Now we call it Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI). It’s psychogenic, meaning it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It’s not caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin. There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population. It usually occurs in a group of people who don’t have a lot of power. MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It’s an easy way for them to express that something is wrong.”

You might’ve missed it, but it’s worth repeating: they were very stressed out.

In 1961, Tanganyika had it’s hands on newly minted independence. But drastic social change, counterintuitively, comes with it’s own set of trade-offs. The cost here was that when you are a country who has just won it’s independence, people expect more out of you precisely because of that independence. When you go to a better school, people expect you to make more money. When you have more money, people expect you to be more happy. When you have more freedom, you are expected to be more successful. These expectations were sharp, but they were especially sharp for a very specific subset of people.

“The young people involved,” Hempelmann says, “reported that they were feeling stressed by the higher expectations of their teachers and parents.” It all started with three girls. But the key detail is that these three girls were planted firmly in the classroom. It was the students that started the fire.

This brings up something that is as haunting as it is important. The reporters and the researchers are people that are, quite literally, paid to think well. They are brilliant people. Yet so many of them got the thinking wrong.

What this says so unmistakably is this: it is truly hard to know something. Author Scott Young writes on his 29th birthday¹⁰:

“The biggest change in my outlook is simply that many things which seemed crystal clear to me when I was younger, no longer do today. Ironically, this isn’t because I’ve learned less, but because I’ve learned more. When you’ve heard a few good arguments in a single direction, you can become convinced in them strongly. When you’ve heard many good arguments in many directions, including many that you never would have considered before, it becomes clear how difficult it is to know things, and how many possible explanations or ideas there are to fit the patterns of life and reality.”

There is also a paradox. If you are less sure of what you know, you’re more likely to, weirdly, have better ideas. Meaning, if there’s more self-doubt laced in your thinking — the very thing that thinks that you’re wrong — your ideas might be less worthy of that very self-doubt in the first place. By this logic, then, the more sure you are of what you know, the less likely you are to know what you’re talking about.

Reporters who got the story wrong (in small or large ways) were reporters who could have been like me and you. And that’s the point.

We’re blind, as Daniel Kahneman says, to our blindness. We all posit flawed narratives and faulty ideas. Even Hempelmann (yes, Hempelmann!) could be wrong.

When I was telling Kevin the story of what happened in 1962, I didn’t really consider if it was true or not. To be honest, we were at a bar, and I don’t think either of us cared that much. But it’s that missing consideration that deserves your attention on ideas that carry heavier complications. I like what Austin Kleon says:

“Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”

Your job, also, is to parse out the good from the bad, the average from the lesser, the better from the best, and to integrate all of these ideas within the scaffolding of your life — all while knowing that many ideas aren’t black and white, but complicated and tricky. They deserve a light, tenuous grasp.

This doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of everything you believe in, freak out, have a mental breakdown, and then go play in traffic. But it does mean you should — in a general sense — strive to think better than you did the day before and hold onto your opinions with a nimble flexibility. Strong opinions, weakly held, Paul Saffro’s saying goes.

Because, while Hempelmann struck back at the work of others, what I’m asking you to do is a little harder: strike back at yourself. Built in to your own ideas is the built-in impulse that you’re right. There’s temple walls enshrining your ideas, and it’s precisely those walls that can keep the bad ideas in. But, playing with those walls is one of the best bets you can place in yourself, because so few people do.

We can learn to revise our conclusions, read new books (and take notes), and look at ideas from different angles. We can take ideas that aren’t working and replace them with ideas that do — from how to deal with a friend to how to mend a broken relationship.

There was something in Hempelmann’s earlier interview, before the publication of his paper in 2007, that I loved. Sebastian asked, as a closing question, if there would be anymore research into the Tanganyika laughter epidemic.

Hempelmann says the case is dead. He says there were no good records kept, and that it’ll be hard to get reliable information.

But then, he tells the interviewer he’s going to try and go to Africa. He’s going to go back and interview the people who were there.

In essence, he’s going to try and revise again.


 

Special thanks to Kevin Sanji, Justine Brumm, and Vysali Soundararajan for their feedback — they’re the real American heroes.

In case you were wondering: this podcast is adapted from the episode we ran, “The Revisionist Strikes Back”, on Moonwalk.

 

Research

  1. What I got right — it was a case of MPI. Four thousand points, Mohnish.
  2. Both the reporter and researcher can be found directly cited in Christian Hempelmann’s paper, “The laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika ‘laughter epidemic’.” (2007).
  3. All quotes from Hempelmann (besides the Chicago Tribune interview), criticism, and the science behind the epidemic, can be found extensively in Christain Hempelmann’s paper, “The laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika ‘laughter epidemic’.” (2007).
  4. This idea is from Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s wonderful book, “Think Like a Freak”.
  5. This idea is from Ryan Holiday’s stellar book, “Ego is the Enemy”.
  6. Quotes and commentary from Rankin and Phillip’s reports can be found in their paper, “An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika” (1963)
  7. The 1962 Tanganyika’s election data can be found in the African Elections Database.
  8. The interview with Simone Sebastian and Christain Hemplelmann can be found in the Chicago Tribune article, “Examining 1962’s ‘laughter epidemic’”
  9. For the scorekeepers: I got the MPI angle right, but — at the time — thought the event was focused on the ‘contagiousness of laughter’. Negative two thousand points.
  10. This quote can be found in Scott Young’s post, “I’m 29”. He’s fantastic.
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