A non hysterical view of ‘cheerleader hysteria’

I’ve written an article for the Discover Magazine blog The Crux about mass hysteria and conversion disorder in light of the not-very-good-coverage given to the issue after a group of cheerleaders with unexplained neurological symptoms made the headlines.

The New York Times described the situation as a ‘nutty story’ and said hysteria is ‘not supposed to happen anymore’ which is insulting and wrong in equal measure.

Nature News described the situation as a ‘mystery US outbreak’ and managed to confusion conversion disorder with mass hysteria, generating a unfortunate mix of scaremongering and confusion.

So the article for Discover Magazine tracks the history of conversion disorder (the condition that the girls have actually been diagnosed with), what it actually means (neurological symptoms without neurological damage) and the science of how we can experience unusual effects like blindness, paralysis or, in this case, tics, without actually having a neurological disorder.

As Freud fell out of fashion, many people assumed that the concept of hysteria had gone with him, but this is not the case. Although his theory about hysteria being caused by the “unconscious repression of trauma” isn’t very popular among scientists, it’s a simple fact that patients can develop what seem like neurological disorders—such as paralysis, blindness, seizures, and tics—despite having a perfectly functioning nervous system. And despite popular claims that the condition is rare or “doesn’t happen any more,” it still commonly presents in neurological clinics. Numerous studies have found that up to one-third of patients who consult with neurologists typically have symptoms that are not fully explained by neurological damage.

 

Link to Discover Crux piece on ‘Cheerleader hysteria’.

2 Comments

  1. Posted March 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is another one of those “illnesses” that seems suspiciously “psychosomatic”, and occurs in women far more than men. There also appears to be little evidence of a physical cause, although apparently some forms of cognitive therapy are reported to be effective. And though it’s not a very “scientific” observation, I have been struck by how often the women with CFS that I’ve met, have seemed to be particularly ambitious and “driven” types of personalities. As though the only way they could ever allow themselves some “slack” in their relentless activity, is if they had the “excuse” of a “disease”… which is not unlike Freud’s explanation for “repression”.

  2. Posted March 2, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Regarding conversion disorders, you might want to take a look at this post: http://blog.autoimmunetherapies.com/lost_wanderer/2009/07/19/delusions-as-strategic-deception/
    It discusses a paper by Edward H. Hagen in which he argues that this disorder is one example of a number of types of unconscious strategic deception that evolved in humans.


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