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What is Piblokto?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Piblokto or pibloktoq is a psychiatric syndrome which was first described by explorers to the Arctic regions of the world. It has since been widely covered and can even be found in psychiatric texts, with theories to explain it ranging from vitamin A toxicity to harsh weather. However, research on Canadian Aboriginal and Inuit populations highlighted by Canadian journalist Sarah Efron has suggested that in fact piblokto may have been an invention of explorers, and not a real syndrome. The psychiatric community is often slow to update, and there is some dispute about the veracity of reports of piblokto.

Explorers to the Arctic described actions which they believed were signs of mental disturbance including screaming, depression, withdrawal from society, a lack of sensitivity to cold, and echolalia, in which people repeat sounds meaninglessly. Some people also described situations in which people ate items not normally viewed as food, including feces. Explorers asked the native populations which word they would use to describe the syndrome, and wrote down “pibloktoq” or “piblokto,” but, according to Efron, these words appear to be mistranscriptions or confusions because they do not appear to exist.

It was common for European explorers to mishear native words, or to transcribe them poorly. In an era when spelling of English words was still wildly inconsistent, people attempting to transcribe words in foreign languages often came up with some very creative variations. There are several Inuit words similar to “piblokto” which describe various states of mental distress, and it may be that these words were used and explorers misunderstood them.

Some Canadian historians who have researched piblokto have suggested that in fact what explorers viewed as “madness” might have been a stress reaction. European explorers greatly stressed the communities they interacted with, especially when they took members of the native population along to use as guides and assistants. It is possible that the behavior observed and reported by some explorers was indeed aberrant, but it had less to do with the harsh conditions of the Arctic than it did with the conditions encountered among groups of explorers.

Referred to as “Arctic madness” or “Arctic hysteria,” piblokto may well have been sensationalized by some explorers, as many adventurers needed to recoup the costs of expeditions with book sales, lectures, and similar activities. Once the concept of piblokto entered the canon, it proved difficult to dislodge, with a handful of anecdotal reports being amplified.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon936144 — On Feb 27, 2014

"Hey, some strangers have showed up to stay with us, and they do things strangely and have strange equipment. Some of them are OK and some of them seem like assholes. And they want our help traveling through our land. Boy, this is an unusual situation, I'm stressed -I think I will dance around naked in the snow, mumble incoherently, and eat poop. Don't worry guys, I swear I'm not crazy, just a little stressed out, is all!"

How much sense does that make? None. Seriously, I know it is fashionable to condemn every white explorer or leader as an "evil imperialist capitalist colonizer," but really, they weren't idiots. Crazy in 1880 or 1890 looked the same then as it does now, and it doesn't take a mental giant to recognize when somebody has temporarily gone a bit cuckoo.

By anon307619 — On Dec 06, 2012

I lived and taught school in the northwest arctic and I can assure you that arctic hysteria is very real and I experienced it. It was terrible.

By recapitulate — On Jul 15, 2011

I agree with comments that it was probably due to stress. I think malnutrition or starvation in general might have affected explorers, but that would have been compounded by a form of culture shock as well.

By Markus — On Jul 15, 2011

I find it hard to believe that vitamin A toxicity could have anything to do with acts of paranoia that causes someone to run around naked in the snow screaming frantically. Hypervitaminosis A basically means an overdose of the vitamin and that too much of it is being stored in the body.

It's my understanding that consuming too much vitamin A causes more physical harm than mental disorders although it can cause the central nervous system to malfunction.

Other symptoms over long periods of consumption are liver complications and osteoporosis. And an overdose of too much vitamin A all at once like taking too many supplements still only causes physical conditions.

The symptoms are similar to any other vitamin overdose which causes vomiting, headaches, dizziness and trouble with vision and coordination. It has nothing to do with schizophrenic behavior.

My theory is Piblokto derived from an extreme environment, isolation and possibly fear, but not from a poor diet.

By babylove — On Jul 15, 2011

What an interesting article. I had no idea there was such a thing as piblokto madness. But then I guess living through all those months of extreme cold and darkness would naturally take a toll on your mind.

The closest thing I can relate to it is cabin fever. That must be why Spring is my favorite season.

By Azuza — On Jul 14, 2011

@Monika - Be that as it may, I don't think that eating feces is a normal reaction to stress. I think the truth of this matter probably lies somewhere in the middle of "real" and "made up."

By Monika — On Jul 14, 2011

I think this condition does sound like a stress reaction. And no wonder!

European explorers often treated the native populations very poorly. A lot of European explorers attempted to interfere with their cultures, religions, and practices. Not to mention taking land and bringing disease. I don't blame the native population of the Arctic for being stressed

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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