To review the relevance of cultural models in the generation and amplification of somatic symptoms and syndromes.
Based on a selective review of literature, we examine evidence that cultural and personal explanatory models can contribute to the pathogenesis, symptomatology, and chronicity of medically unexplained symptoms and functional somatic syndromes.
In the contemporary world, culture involves flows of information, roles, and institutions that offer individuals multiple models for understanding illness. Cultural models include 1) explanatory models, which make causal attributions and impute specific mechanisms or processes of pathophysiology; 2) prototypes, which are salient images or exemplars drawn from personal experience, family, friends, mass media, and popular culture that are used to reason analogically about one’s own condition; and 3) implicit models and procedural knowledge that may be difficult to articulate because they are embedded in body practices and ways of experiencing distress. Symptom attributions and explanations can participate in vicious circles of symptom amplification that give rise to culture-specific varieties of panic disorder, hypochondriacal worry, and medically unexplained symptoms.
Clinical research using the methods of experimental cognitive and social psychology as well as community-based ethnographic and ecological research are needed to advance our understanding of the impact of personal and cultural models on somatic distress. Nevertheless, the current state of knowledge on social and cultural dimensions of somatic syndromes suggests a typology of forms of psychosomatic and sociosomatic looping that has implications for the nosology of somatoform disorders.