Agnosognosia: A convenient “truth”

Today,  Mad in America blogger psychiatrist Sandra Steingard, MD*, debunks the term “agnosognosia” as it is popularly applied to a person experiencing psychotic symptoms.

Neurologists use the term anosognosia to describe a peculiar syndrome in which a person has a profound lack of awareness of an obvious deficit. For instance, a person who has a stroke on the right side of his brain and is paralyzed of the left side of his body has no awareness of the problem. He might not recognize his left arm as his own. When given a page to read, he might only read the words on the right side of the page. He would only put his shirt on his right arm but when asked if he was adequately dressed, he would answer, yes. This phenomena is regularly associated with damage to the right side of the brain in the section called the parietal lobe.

In the 1990′s, a psychologist, Xavier Amador, began to use this term in the context of describing a person who was experiencing psychotic symptoms and did not believe that his problems were due to an illness. For instance, if a person heard voices that no one else heard, he might conclude that he was communicating with dead relatives. When his doctors or family told him that he was sick, he would disagree. Doctors would call this “lack of insight” and Amador was one of the first to appropriate the neurological term, anosognosia to describe this.

There is a history in neuroscience of trying to apply what has been learned from studying the cognition and behavior of people who have had strokes to develop a more general understanding of the connection between brain function and behavior. In that spirit, there have been multiple studies to address whether there were changes in the brains of people who were psychotic and were described as having a “lack of insight” that were similar to the changes found in people who had right hemisphere strokes.

Readers on this site have wondered how the notion of a “chemical imbalance” could have been accepted by so many when the research did not actually support the concept. A recent paper from the Treatment Advocacy Center that summarizes studies of anosognosia in psychosis gives some clue as to how this type of thinking becomes entrenched and accepted.

READ the rest of her article, Anosognosia: how conjecture becomes medical “fact” here.

*Sandra Steingard, M.D. is the Medical Director of Howard Center and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. She was educated and trained at Harvard and Tufts Universities in Boston and received her specialty certification in psychiatry from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1986.

Her areas of interest include community mental health and the diagnosis and management of psychotic illnesses. She was named an Exemplary Psychiatrist by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Vermont in 1996, and has been listed in the Best Doctors in America since 2003. She can be reached at:

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