KAYAK ANGST NOT CAUSED BY SENSORY DEPRIVATION
firstname.lastname@example.org November 4, 2017
When I was in Greenland in 1959 I met three men who could not kayak. They were young enough, they were strong enough, but they had “kayak angst.” Also known as “kayak dizziness,” “kayak fear,” “kayak phobia,” an attack can be a truly life-threatening experience. The kayaker believes that he is about to capsize, or sink, can become paralyzed with fear and may have one or another of several terrifying hallucinations.
One of these three men lived at Uummannatsiaq, the village Bent Jensen and I visited while I was staying with him at Ikerasak. It was Bent, speaking of this man, who first told me about kayak angst. At Illorsuit, one of the two men there who also had kayak angst offered to sell me his kayak since he had, quite recently, had to stop using it.
My visit to Illorsuit had been arranged by Dr. Harald I. Drever of St. Andrews University. As a geologist, he had himself already been there four times and was a great admirer of the skills of the village kayakers. He sent me there to carry out a general study of the villagers’ seal hunting by kayak. My stay was too brief for it to be possible for me to make any study of the kayak angst.
In 1970 Dr. Zachary Gussow made the suggestion that sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst. And this idea, both in a few published works and on the internet, has for many years been the prevailing interpretation. My purpose in this article is to show, using the information given in the 60 cases histories published by Dr. Alfred Bertelsen in 1905, that sensory deprivation cannot have been the cause of the problem. I shall also confirm Bertelsen’s original conclusion that it was a kind of phobia.
[I want to assure you that I know Dr. Klaus G. Hansen’s 1995 article on the traditional belief of the Greenland Inuit that the supernatural creatures called tupilaq caused the attacks of kayak angst. While here I am not covering that aspect of the matter, it has been a long-term interest of mine and I was delighted to find that Hansen had researched and published so conclusively on the subject.]
Alfred Bertelsen’s writing on Kayak Angst
In 1963, when I was an anthropology student in Wisconsin, it turned out that my academic adviser Dr. William S. Laughlin also had an interest in kayak angst. He and I wrote a paper on the subject in which we commented on the fact that it had never been reported from other parts of the Arctic/Sub-arctic, but only from Greenland. We suggested that there might be a genetic predisposition to the problem, such that it occurred only among the Inuit of Greenland (Taylor and Laughlin 1963 and 1991).
While preparing that paper, I read Bertelsen’s 1905 publication “Neuro-patologiske Meddelelser fra Grønland” and his later 1940 publication in which he essentially repeats his earlier conclusions. He had worked as a district medical officer on the West Greenland coast from the early 1900s to 1927. It was in 1902-1903 that he recorded the 60 case histories of men afflicted by kayak angst — 5 of them from the Uummannaq district where Illorsuit is located — included in his 1905 publication.
Bertelsen was by no means the first person to write about kayak angst. He tells us that in 1864 a Dr. Carl Lange had attributed it to excessive enjoyment of coffee. In 1882 tobacco was given as the cause by Dr. L. C. von Haven. In 1883, Dr. M. Hastrup suggested it might be a form of epilepsy and then, in 1886, wrote that he believed that it had existed before the Greenlanders had any access to coffee or tobacco. Dr. G. Meldorf, in 1900, agreed with von Haven that tobacco might be the cause. Meldorf, it turns out, was the first person to inquire into the incidence of the ailment: he found that it was reported by at least 10% of the men over 18 years of age of the Qaqortoq district [then Juliannehaab] in southwest Greenland.
Bertelsen notes that Dr. Knud Pontoppidan, in his “Psychiatriake forelaesninger og studies [Psychiatric lessons and studies]” of 1893, had suggested that kayak angst might be a form of agoraphobia. This is interesting as Bertelsen describes how, when he was invited in 1902 to join the Danish Literary Greenland Expedition, Dr. Pontoppidan (who had always claimed that the Danes had a special obligation to study kayak angst as a national affliction of the Greenlanders) made a point of encouraging him to give his attention to the matter. Bertelsen says that it was in response to this encouragement that he collected the 60 case histories that are in his 1905 report.
Bertelsen’s data on kayak angst
The information in Bertelsen’s case histories [here I am using the translation helpfully provided by Gussow (1970)] has to do with the personal backgrounds of the 60 kayak angst victims who had sought him out, recent events in their lives, whether or not the men had relatives who also suffered from the ailment, any past or recent stress or alarms they had experienced. There is information on the weather and other conditions on the days when they experienced their attacks of the angst, if they were alone or with other kayakers, were they close to land or far out at sea, etc., etc.
Bertelsen himself seems to have wondered if any of these factors might explain the occurrence of kayak angst. He reports, however, that while the onset often occurred when the kayaker was alone at sea, a number of cases were known where it happened in the company of others. It could occur under various water and weather conditions — in calm and rough water, on foggy and sunny days, with the sun low and in the man’s eyes or high and well out of his field of vision. But no single factor (or cluster of factors) consistently preceded the attacks, and could be considered the “cause” of the experience. No doubt it would make more sense to see these factors, or certain of these factors, as possible “triggers” of an attack.
The survey he carried out in 1903-1904 (for which he followed Meldorf’s example of using questionnaires) gave him some limited information on 70 kayakers, in addition to the 60 of his earlier study. For this total number of 130 men, he gave the following information on the percentages of kayakers suffering from kayak angst:
Upernavik district 15%
Uummannaq district 12%
Ilulissat and Qasigiannguit districts 12%
Qerqertarssuaq and Aasiaat districts 13%
and, from Meldorf, for the
Qaqortoq district 10%
There could be no doubt, then, that for the Greenland Inuit it was a serious problem. Speaking of the total of 130 kayakers (in northwest Greenland) Bertelsen reported that after 12 years of experiencing the problem 18% of the victims had to give up kayaking altogether; after 7 years, 51% could continue but only if in the company of others; and after 6 years, 31% could still kayak alone “but with lessened confidence [for example, fishing but not hunting].” He also calculated from Meldorf’s data that the equivalent figures for the Qaqortoq district were: 24%; 39%; and 37%.
Sensory Deprivation in Gussow’s interpretation
First, I need to point out that Gussow is not talking about all the 60 men of Bertelsen’s case histories. For some reason this has not been noticed by the several people who have commented on, or simply cite, his 1970 article. This is strange because Gussow states quite clearly that he is talking about what he terms kayak angst “Type II.” What he calls “Type I” angst, “seems to be a regular accompaniment of hunting, common to a majority of hunters, and perhaps to all, at one time or another, [occurring] when the hunter finds himself in an immediate and realistically dangerous situation” (page 229). His “Type II,” on the other hand, which he considers to result from sensory deprivation, he presents as affecting just 20 of these 60 kayakers.
He speaks of nine circumstances which he believes may have led to sensory deprivation being experienced by these 20 men. These are: 1) being alone; 2) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 3) being in a visually “fixed” or “staring” position; 4) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 5) being in monotonously rolling ground swells; 6) being on “glistening” seas; 7) a suggestion of “bottomlessness;” 8) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; 9) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal.
“Being alone” is the condition mentioned by the greatest number of the 60 kayakers. A total of 37 men spoke of this. But Gussow also gives “being alone” as a condition for his “Type I” kayak angst and only 14 of these 37 kayakers are on his list of the 20 men who had “Type II.” “Being in a visually ‘fixed’ of ‘staring’ position” is really just an aspect of the “sitting quietly or paddling slowly” condition and is not mentioned explicitly by any of the 60 men. “Being on ‘glistening’ seas” is mentioned by only one man, not on Gussow’s list of 20. Experiencing a suggestion of “bottomlessness” is also mentioned only once, by a man on the list of 20.
Removing these four leaves us with a list of five conditions we can consider as possibly having led to experiences of sensory deprivation: 1) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 2) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 3) in monotonously rolling ground swell; 4) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; and 5) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal. So, in which of the 20 cases did these conditions apply? There is only one case (# 60) in which all five conditions apply. In one case (# 31) none of the conditions apply. And here we have a problem in examining Gussow’s proposal. At no point does he say which, or how many, of these conditions need apply for the kayaker to have experienced sensory deprivation.
Looking at the five conditions, one by one — for all of Bertelsen’s 60 cases — we have the following.
1) “Sitting quietly or paddling slowly” is mentioned by 23 men, 9 of them on Gussow’s list of 20.
2) Being on smooth “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas is mentioned by 30 men, 10 of them on his list of 20.
3) Being in monotonously rolling ground swells is mentioned by 17 men, 9 of them on his list of 20.
4) The sun being in the kayaker’s eyes is mentioned by 8 men, 3 of them on his list of 20.
5) Nothing in view to establish the horizontal. This is mentioned by 16 men, 5 of them on his list of 20.
From Bertelsen’s data, then, we see that all of the five conditions Gussow speaks of as having led to sensory deprivation were experienced “across the board,” not only by men on his list of 20 but also by a high number (32) of the other 40 men of the case histories. Gussow’s suggestion that (unlike the other 40) these 20 men experienced kayak angst because of sensory deprivation is not at all confirmed by the data in Bertelsen’s 60 case histories.
In fact, it seems that Gussow selected his group of 20 not on the basis of the information in the case histories, but simply from the similarity he saw between their hallucinatory experiences while undergoing an attack of kayak angst and observations from laboratory experiments on sensory deprivation. “A regularly occurring perceptual distortion is that [a man’s] kayak is shrinking in size, becoming narrower or strangely small,” and: “In the laboratory it has been repeatedly noted that pronounced experiences of body-size changes occur during sensory and perceptual isolating experiments” (page 231).
Kayak angst as a phobia
After detailed discussion of the material in the 60 case histories and in other authors, Bertelsen concluded that the affliction was a phobia; that it was a pathological fear. He goes on to say: “something quite similar … is well known from … material on phobias [he mentions agoraphobia and more specifically topophobia, which is defined as “the fear of certain places or situations”] and I have no doubt that it would be justified here to [name] a particular kind of phobia for which I would recommend the name Laitmatophobia.” This suggestion of a new label for the affliction, however, has never been adopted.
From medical websites on the internet I found the following, “Agoraphobia: an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives the environment to be unsafe … The cause of agoraphobia is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The condition often runs in families, …” And Bertelsen says, “in [a number of cases] the affliction is seen to be a family illness.” Of his 60 cases, in 45 of these the kayaker had family members who also had kayak angst.
I also found that “people with phobias often have panic attacks … As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a panic attack can cause physical symptoms …” This concept of “panic attack” was, of course, not available to Bertelsen back at the beginning of last century. Apparently it was adopted and added to the list of Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC) in 1975, and then later adopted by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980.
Before continuing on the subject of panic attacks, I would like to include here some examples of the dangers and frightening experiences to which the Greenland kayakers were regularly exposed.
Spencer Chapman in his book “Watkin’s Last Expedition” tells us that “Karali [Karale Andreassen, the renowned Inuit artist], once a skilful kayak-hunter, had now given it up, having a year or two ago capsized and nearly drowned” (1934, page 56).
Gert Nooter tells us that “Lars Jonathansen was born in 1934 … Until 1962 he had owned and used a kayak … but he was not skilled either in handling it or in hunting. He had been rescued as many as three times by another hunter when his kayak capsized. … he finally gave up using it” (1976, page 24).
And Chapman tells this story: “One, Iago, harpooned a bladder-nosed seal but failed to kill it. The animal attacked the kayak, and as often as the Eskimo came up again with his paddle the seal capsized him. At last he became too exhausted to roll any longer, so wriggled out of his kayak and held on to the float. The seal then wound the hunting-line around him and bit one of his boots off; but Iago managed to get out his pocket-knife and cut the line, after which the seal had the decency to make off … he had to be lifted out on to an ice-floe. … about half of the more enterprising hunters have at one time or another been attacked by these animals” (1934, page 297).
The following examples are paraphrased from Bertelsen’s case histories —
In April 1890 he had been hunting with two brothers, a bit out from shore. One of them capsized and they were unable to help him back into his ice-laden kayak. They held him above water for an hour until he froze to death before their eyes. It was a month before he went out again. He thought he saw his dead brother hang onto his kayak, then let go, and sink (Case # 15).
Seven years ago, a brother capsized and drowned before his eyes (Case # 24).
One of his brothers died when he was capsized by an iceberg (Case # 32)
Two years ago his problems with the angst began when he was pulled into the water by a seal and almost drowned. He released his hunting float and held onto it until he was rescued by another hunter (Case # 39).
Five years ago his father drowned in front of him without his being able to help (Case # 42).
It would be wrong, I believe, to not also mention here the significance of the traditional belief that kayak angst resulted from the attack of a tupilaq. Being aware at all times that a supernatural creature might attack you must have added considerably to the stressfulness of kayak hunting. And in 1905 Bertelsen himself says at one point: “for quite a few the anxiety is directed towards something more indefinite ‘which could come from behind and overturn them’.” And in his 1940 review of the subject he says: “In many cases, the attack started with a pronounced anxiety, fear either of capsizing or sinking or perhaps that something unknown would get the kayak to capsize it” (page 182). On reviewing the 60 case histories, I found that not only did the men speak of how extremely frightening the experience could be but also that, in 13 cases, they spoke of feeling threatened by something they could not explain.
From these websites I also compiled a list of 18 common signs of panic attack. Twelve of these are mentioned by Bertelsen’s patients, with these eight being the signs most often described:
1. the attack is brief;
2, fear of death (by capsize or sinking);
5. loss of control;
7. palpitations; and
8. hot flushes or chills.
Anyone evincing four or more of these signs can be taken as having a panic attack. And four or more of these eight signs are mentioned in 43 of the case histories. In one case all eight are mentioned.
The information in the 60 case histories strongly suggests that an experience of kayak angst was that of having a panic attack.
I have shown that Gussow’s suggestion that sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst is not at all borne out by the data in Bertelsen’s 60 case histories.
Re-examining Bertelsen’s data in light of the concept of “panic attack” confirms his original interpretation of kayak angst as a kind of phobia.
1905 Neuro-patologiske meddelelser fra Grønland. Bibliotek for Laeger, rk 8, bd 6: 109-135, 280-335. Copenhagen
1940 Grønlandsk medicinsk Statistik og Nosografi. Meddelelser om Grønland, bd 117(3). Copenhagen
Chapman, F. Spencer
1934 Watkin’s Last Expedition. Chatto & Windus. London
1970 Some responses of west Greenland Eskimos to a naturalistic situation of perceptual deprivation. Inter-Nord, International Journal of Arctic and Nordic Studies, vol 11:227-62. Paris
Hansen, Klaus Georg
1995 Kayak Dizziness. Historical Reflections about a Greenlandic Predicament. Folk, vol 37: 51-74. Copenhagen
1976 Leadership and Headship. E. J. Brill. Leiden
1892 Psykiatriske Forelaesninger og Studier. Th. Lind. Copenhagen
Taylor, Kenneth I. and Laughlin, William S.
1963 Sub-arctic kayak commitment and “kayak fear.” Paper presented by Taylor. American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. San Francisco
and published in:
Arima, Eugene Y. (ed.)
1991 Contributions to Kayak Studies: 79-91. Canadian Ethnology Service, Mercury Series, Paper 122. Canadian Museum of Civilization