Dealing with the unknown. Functional neurological disorder (FND) and the conversion of cultural meaning

Maddalena Canna*, Rebecca Seligman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), otherwise known as Conversion Disorder, is characterized by abnormal sensory or motor symptoms that are determined to be “incompatible” with neurological disease. FND patients are a challenge for contemporary medicine. They experience high levels of distress, disability, and social isolation, yet a large proportion of those treated do not get better. Patients with FNDs are often misdiagnosed and suffer from stigma, dysfunctional medical encounters and scarcity of adequate treatments. In this paper we argue that an anthropological understanding of these phenomena is needed for improving diagnosis and therapies. We argue that cultural meaning is pivotal in the development of FND on three levels. 1) The embodiment of cultural models, as shared representations and beliefs about illnesses shape the manifestation of symptoms and the meanings of sensations; 2) The socialization of personal trauma and chronic stress, as the way in which individuals are socially primed to cope or to reframe personal trauma and chronic stress affects bodily symptoms; 3) Moral judgment, as stigma and ethical evaluations of symptoms impact coping abilities and resilience. In particular, we focus on the disorder known as PNES (Psychogenic-Non-Epileptic Seizure) to show how cultural meaning co-determines the development of such seizures. We introduce the notion of interoceptive affordances to account for the cultural scaffolding of patients’ bodily experiences. Finally, we suggest that effective treatments of FND must act upon meaning in all of its aspects, and treatment adequacy must be assessed according to the cultural diversity of patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number112725
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Feb 2020


  • Conversion
  • Cultural meaning
  • Functional neurological disorder
  • Healthcare
  • Interoceptive affordances
  • Medical ontology
  • Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES)
  • Somatization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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