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.