"Are You Saying She's Mentally Ill Then?" Explaining Medically Unexplained Seizures in Clinical Encounters
Bodily phenomena that are difficult to identify, localize, explain and cure with the aid of modern biomedical knowledge and technology leave ample room for cultural influence. That makes them a perfect case for studying the cultural dimension of medical knowledge and practice. Building on this assumption we qualitatively explore the communication between neurologists and women with seizure disorders of uncertain etiology, often labeled psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES), in a specialist clinic in England. Based on an interpretation of film-recordings of eight naturally-occurring clinical consultations we discuss the following questions: How do neurologists explain the name, the cause and the treatment options to these patients? How do patients and their companions respond to these explanations? And finally, what makes these interactions so difficult? Our interpretation of the data is inspired by critical discourse analysis, and framed within a social constructionist perspective on medical knowledge and practice. We found that the neurologists presented the diagnosis and its cause—inappropriate stress management—through objective language that conveyed a high degree of certainty. Patient-parties often disagreed, and found it hard to believe that these physical symptoms had a psychological origin. Companions often acted as advocates for the patients in negotiations with the doctors. The polarized debate between psychogenic and somatic understandings of the seizures that emerged illuminates how the Cartesian dualism between body and mind complicates clinical encounters—a dualism doctors explicitly reject, but presumably accept. We argue that it is impossible to overcome this polarization without acknowledging the cultural dimension of medical knowledge and practice.