AP Story: The Return of Sudden Death in Nepali Workers


A young wife in Nepal cries as she leans on the coffin of her 26 year-old husband, a migrant worker who died in his sleep in Qatar. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha) Source.

In December, an AP reporter named Martha Mendoza called me to ask about a blogpost I’d written about a phenomenon called SUDS (Sudden Unexplained Death During Sleep) that occurred in Southeast Asian refugees. Apparently, the story was published in December, but I didn’t know it until a Nepali official in Saudi Arabia contacted me about it, as he was concerned about young migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States who were dying in fairly high numbers there.

I originally wrote “Killer Ghosts & Broken Hearts: The Mystery of Sudden Unexplained Death in Sleep in Asian Men” way back in 2010, and it’s been one of the more widely read posts on this site. I think the reason for that is because it’s hard to find accessible information on SUDS, and because there are still many people in Asia who are worried about it (particularly, it seems, in the Philippines). 

My interests in the topic started simply from having Hmong, Lao, and Khmer friends in college who told me they had been attacked by ghosts at nighttime. By the time I got to graduate school, I ended up looking at the culture and biology of this in Andrea Wiley’s class on Medical Anthropology, and whether it was connected to SUDS. I almost pursued the topic for my dissertation, but was advised that it would probably be a dead-end because there weren’t as many fatal cases by that time. 

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Nature Wants to Play With You

[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].

A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat YouPlaying off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.

I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open”  (2009: 58).      

An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However,  not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. For long-living species like ourselves, there is a lot of time to spend responding to life’s challenges, before, during, and after making it to the age of reproduction. All of those moments surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when they are pleasurable, when we can find meaning and happiness, and when our relationships with those around us are cooperative rather than antagonistic. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.

Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).


University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges:  

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Pursuing the God of Truth in a Post-Truth Era

[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]

“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”

– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)

“Veritas super omnia.”


Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).

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Why Mice Don’t Get Ulcers

In his 1994 book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Robert Sapolsky described the difference between the types of stress that people often experience and the ones that other animal species do. In his titular example, if you were a zebra, you’d most likely face acute physical stress – the lion about to eat you – which requires immediate physiological adaptations (the fight-or-flight response). A second type of stress might be chronic and physical (drought, famine, parasites, etc.).

However, the third type of stress on Sapolsky’s list – the type most prominent in an industrialized human’s life – was social and psychological. While our species certainly benefited from expanding brain size over the last few million years, it too came with trade-offs, including the ability to overthink and worry about things to come down the road. This type of stress would not have featured too prominently into the mental lives of other species. As Sapolsky wrote:

“How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date? 

For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses – but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships and promotions” (p. 5 – 6).

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Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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One Hundred Percent American (for the time being)

“All is flux.” – Heraclitus

“Todo cambia.” Mercedes Sosa


Below is a classic 1937 essay by the cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton. I think it is as relevant today – as divisions seem to be growing – as it was when it was first written. Linton was reminding us of some of the ways that our world is interconnected, and that it has been that way for a very, very long time. Eric Wolf summarized things this way: “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality (1982:3).” (Note: Jason Antrosio wrote an excellent post on Wolf’s take on this interconnected world, and how seats of power have shifted over the centuries. What we see now is merely a snapshot in time).

Despite all of the different places of origin of our inventions, foods, traditions, languages, genes, and people, they don’t remain fixed or separate indefinitely. Some come and go, or are adopted in new places, forming new combinations and identities. “All things flow,” said Alfred North Whitehead. 


An interconnected globe. From: “The history of our world in 18 minutes,” by David Christian


“One Hundred Percent American”

by Ralph Linton, 1937

There can be no question about the average American’s Americanism or his desire to preserve this precious heritage at all costs. Nevertheless, some insidious foreign ideas have already wormed their way into his civilization without his realizing what was going on. Thus dawn finds the unsuspecting patriot garbed in pajamas, a garment of East Indian origin; and lying in a bed built on a pattern which originated in either Persia or Asia Minor. He is muffled to the ears in un-American materials: cotton, first domesticated in India; linen, domesticated in the Near East; wool from an animal native to Asia Minor; or silk whose uses were first discovered by the Chinese. All these substances have been transformed into cloth by methods invented in Southwestern Asia. If the weather is cold enough he may even be sleeping under an eiderdown quilt invented in Scandinavia.

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