The British Journal of Psychiatry

Abstract

BackgroundLa belle indifférence refers to an apparent lack of concern shown by some patients towards their symptoms. It is often regarded as typical of conversion symptoms/hysteria.

Aims To determine the frequency of la belle indifférence in studies of patients with conversion symptoms/hysteria and to determine whether it discriminates between conversion symptoms and symptoms attributable to organic disease.

Method A systematic review of all studies published since 1965 that have reported rates of la belle indifférence in patients with conversion symptoms and/or patients with organic disease.

Results A total of 11 studies were eligible for inclusion. The median frequency of la belle indifférence was 21% (range 0–54%) in 356 patients with conversion symptoms, and 29% (range 0–60%) in 157 patients with organic disease.

Conclusions The available evidence does not support the use of la belle indifférence to discriminate between conversion symptoms and symptoms of organic disease. The quality of the published studies is poor, with a lackof operational definitions and masked ratings. La belle indifférence should be abandoned as a clinical sign until both its definition and its utility have been clarified.

La belle indifférence is defined in the DSM–IV description of conversion disorder (previously referred to as hysteria) as ‘ a relative lack of concern about the nature or implications of the symptoms’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Although not one of the diagnostic criteria for this condition, it is the first feature mentioned in the list of ‘ associated descriptive features’ and it also appears in the description of ICD–10 dissociative disorder (motor type; World Health Organization, 1992). However, the usefulness of this clinical sign remains controversial. We therefore conducted a systematic review to establish the reported frequency of la belle indifférence in patients with neurological symptoms that could not be explained by organic disease (conversion symptoms/hysteria) compared with patients with confirmed organic disease. We assessed the quality of the published studies and explored how the concept of la belle indifférence might be refined.

METHOD

Search strategy

The following databases were searched: Medline (1966 to December 2003), Cinahl (1982 to December 2003), EMBASE (1980 to December 2003) and PsycINFO (1965 to December 2003). We used all the vocabulary headings within each database for symptoms unexplained by organic disease, as well as the following text words: PSYCHOSOMATIC, PSYCHOGENIC, SOMATISATION, UNEXPLAINED, CONVERSION, NONORGANIC and DISSOC*. They were combined with text words for PARALYSIS, PARESIS, SENSORY DISTURBANCE, DEAFNESS, HEARING, VIS*, BLIND* and MOVEMENT DISORDERS. References to pseudoseizures were searched using the following text words: PSEUDOSEIZURE, NON-EPILEPTIC and HYSTERICAL ATTACK. In addition, all references under the heading ‘conversion disorder’ or with the text words HYSTERI*, INDIFFERENCE or ANOSODIAPHORIA (a term used to describe patients with cortical neglect who are indifferent to their disability) were examined. The titles and abstracts were reviewed online, and reprints of all studies that might contain data on la belle indifférence were obtained. The reference lists of all articles obtained were hand-searched for further articles published after 1965 (to match the electronic search strategy). Reports written in English, French and German were included.

Inclusion criteria

Studies were included only if they met the following criteria.

  1. The patients were reported to have neurological symptoms. If these were described as unexplained, functional, non-organic or psychogenic, or were labelled as hysterical or conversion disorder, the data were placed in the ‘ conversion symptoms/hysteria’ group. We included the symptoms of paralysis, weakness, sensory disturbance, movement disorder, visual loss, hearing loss and non-epileptic seizures. We also included studies reporting functional motor or sensory symptoms associated with pain but excluded studies in which unexplained pain was the sole symptom.

  2. Data could be extracted about the frequency of la belle indifférence in the sample.

  3. There were more than 10 participants in the study.

  4. The participants were over 16 years of age.

Data extraction and analysis

All reports were reviewed independently by three investigators (J.S., R.S. and A.C.). Discrepancies were resolved by a fourth and fifth adjudicator (M.S. and C.W.). Data were collected on the frequency of la belle indifférence, the setting of the study, the sampling method, the symptoms and case definition of the patients and the year of study. We calculated odds ratios for those studies that included control groups using Review Manager 4.2.7 for Windows (http://www.cc-ims.net/RevMan).

RESULTS

In total, 11 studies met the inclusion criteria (Lewis & Berman, 1965; Raskin et al, 1966; Weinstein & Lyerly, 1966; Weinstein et al, 1969; Barnert, 1971; Dickes, 1974; Gould et al, 1986; Kapfhammer et al, 1992; Chabrol et al, 1995; Ebel & Lohmann, 1995; Sharma & Chaturvedi, 1995). Together these studies reported on a total of 356 patients with conversion symptoms and 157 patients with organic disease (see Table 1 and Fig. 1). Six studies were of conversion symptoms/hysteria only and four used a case–control design (Raskin et al, 1966; Weinstein & Lyerly, 1966; Barnert, 1971; Chabrol et al, 1995). One study included only patients with organic disease (Gould et al, 1986). Two studies were excluded. One of these included only children (Siegel & Barthel, 1986); the other (Reed, 1975) was excluded because it was not clear how many patients had la belle indifférence.

View this table:
Table 1

Studies reporting la belle indifférence in patients with conversion symptoms and organic disease

Fig. 1

Frequency ofla belle indifférence. Each point represents an individual study in the review, and the size of the point is related to the number of the patients in the study. The lines represent 95% binomial exact confidence intervals. ▒ Conversion symptoms/hysteria (n=356); ░ organic disease (n=157).

Analysis

The results of the systematic review are shown in Table 1 and Fig. 1. The median frequency of la belle indifférence in studies of 356 patients with conversion symptoms was 21% (range 0–54%). In studies of 157 patients with organic disease, the median frequency was 29% (range 0–60%). Four studies included control groups with disease. Analysis of odds ratios indicated that one controlled study found la belle indifférence to be significantly more common in hysteria (Barnert, 1971), whereas the other three found no significant differences between patients with conversion symptoms and controls with organic disease (Raskin et al, 1966; Weinstein & Lyerly, 1966; Chabrol et al, 1995). An additional study of 30 patients with only organic disease (mainly stroke) reported la belle indifférence in 27% (Gould et al, 1986).

When studies were ordered by year of publication, no trend towards an increase or decrease in reporting of la belle indifférence over time was apparent. Of the 11 studies, 7 concluded that la belle indifférence was not helpful for differentiating those with conversion symptoms from those with organic disease. The other 4 did not comment on its utility.

The quality of the studies was generally poor. Only 6 studies were clearly of consecutive patients (Table 1) and only 6 studies were prospective (Table 1). The latter is important because a retrospective case-note review is unlikely to be a valid means of determining the presence of a clinical sign. Only 8 studies recorded the actual physical symptoms that led to the diagnosis of conversion symptoms (Table 1). This is also an important limitation, as it is much easier to detect la belle indifférence in a patient with paralysis than in an individual with non-epileptic seizures who is asymptomatic between episodes.

Only 2 studies clearly described what they meant by la belle indifférence (Ebel & Lohmann, 1995) or referenced another description (Gould et al, 1986), and none discussed any of the difficulties in making this judgement (see below). Although 1 study used a system of re-rating to improve the reliability of the clinical diagnosis of la belle indifférence (Barnert, 1971), these data were not presented in the paper. Finally, in none of the studies were the investigators masked to the patient’s diagnosis when assessing whether la belle indifférence was present.

DISCUSSION

The evidence from the published literature suggests that la belle indifférence is not a useful clinical sign for distinguishing between conversion symptoms and organic disease. The quality of the published studies was poor, many were retrospective, many provided an incomplete description of the patients’ symptoms, and none used operational criteria and masked ratings to assess whether la belle indifférence was present.

Limitations

The conclusions of this review must be qualified by the limitations inherent in the studies that it included. In addition, there were limitations in the methodology used for the systematic review. First, we only included studies that had been published since 1965. To our knowledge, no large relevant studies were published before that date. Second, the total number of patients in the review is small. Third, some of the patients who were included may have been wrongly diagnosed, although this is unlikely to be a major factor, as a systematic review found the overall rate of misdiagnosis of conversion disorder to be only 4% since 1970 (Stone et al, 2005).

Meanings of la belle indifférence

The term la belle indifférence seems to have gained popularity after Freud used it to describe ‘Elizabeth von R’ in Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895). Freud later attributed the term to Charcot (Freud, 1915), which suggests that it may have been widely used from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. Janet (1907) briefly mentions indifference to both sensory loss and paralysis in his book, The Major Symptoms of Hysteria, but does not appear to use the term ‘ la belle indifférence’. We could not find the term in any of the other well-known books about hysteria published at that time, including Charcot’s translated lectures (Skey, 1867; Charcot, 1889; Savill, 1909; Fox, 1913), although indifference to areas of anaesthesia on examination was mentioned in many of those texts (see below). Thus, if the term was used clinically at that time, it was not deemed sufficiently important to be included in many texts about hysteria. It appeared with more regularity towards the middle of the twentieth century, predominantly in the psychoanalytical literature, before it achieved more widespread usage.

In tracing the history of the term ‘la belle indifférence’, it is clear that it has had more than one meaning since it was first used. We summarise these below.

Hysterical ‘stigmata’ or sensory signs of which the patient is unaware

The commonest description of indifference in the early literature related to the discovery of sensory signs or ‘stigmata’ of which the patient was unaware. Janet expressed this common clinical observation as follows:

This absence of objective disturbances is mostly accompanied by a very curious subjective symptom; namely, the indifference of the patient. When you watch a hysterical patient for the firsttime, or when you study patients coming from the country, who have not yet been examined by specialists, you will find, like ourselves, that, without suffering from it and without suspecting it, they have the deepest and most extensive anaesthesia.... Charcot has often insisted on this point and shown that many patients are much surprised when you reveal to them their insensibility. (Janet, 1907)

Charcot and Janet described ‘hysterical stigmata’ such as hemisensory disturbance, ipsilateral constricted visual fields and reduced hearing, which were characteristically noticed on examination but not reported by the patient (who nevertheless did report other distressing symptoms). Centuries earlier, similar sensory ‘stigmata’ were used as evidence of witchcraft. This clinical phenomenon continues to be seen frequently and is recognised by neurologists as functional or psychogenic (Toth, 2003). However, lack of awareness of sensory disturbance is distinct from the serene indifference to actual disability that is suggested by contemporary descriptions of la belle indifférence.

Conversion of distress

The classic psychoanalytical interpretation of la belle indifférence is that it is evidence that an intrapsychic conflict has been converted and kept from its unacceptable conscious expression by the production of a physical symptom–so-called primary gain. Freud was the first to admit that this process of conversion was not always complete. However, when it is present la belle indifférence appears to represent physical evidence of the conversion process at work, and could be seen as potent evidence of its truth (one reason, perhaps, why it has been such a celebrated sign; Abse, 1966). As psychodynamic theory has progressed, more complex hypotheses have arisen to challenge this rather ‘hydraulic’ model of conversion (Chodoff, 1954; Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). For example, Merskey (1995) suggested that some patients may simply be relieved that they have escaped a more difficult problem in their life by becoming ill. However, the simple conversion model is still the most well known, perhaps because of the persistence of the term ‘ conversion disorder’.

The simple conversion hypothesis is at odds with what is known about the frequency of psychiatric disorder and emotional distress in patients with conversion symptoms. Depression and anxiety are reported in 20–50% of patients with conversion symptoms (Wilson-Barnett & Trimble, 1985; Lecompte & Clara, 1987; Crimlisk et al, 1998). In addition, these patients invariably come to medical attention because they are distressed by their symptoms. These observations do not necessarily negate the conversion hypothesis. However, it must now compete with or accommodate other theoretical developments in this area, including the advances in cognitive neuropsychology and neurobiology discussed below (Spence, 1999; Halligan et al, 2001; Brown, 2004).

Alternative explanations for apparent indifference

‘Putting on a brave face’ to avoid a psychiatric diagnosis

Freud’s first use of the term la belle indifférence–to describe his patient Elizabeth von R in Studies on Hysteria–implies not so much a denial of disability that is obvious to everyone else, as ‘putting a brave face on things’.

She seemed intelligent and mentally normal and bore her troubles, which interfered with her social life and pleasures, with a cheerful air–the belle indifférence of a hysteric, I could not help thinking. (Breuer & Freud, 1895)

Patients with physical symptoms that cannot be explained by organic disease commonly combine clear distress about their physical symptoms with apparent resilience and cheerfulness. However, such cheerfulness is often easy to expose as superficial and as a ‘mask’ for the depression or anxiety that is identified by a more searching interview. In many cases, strenuous efforts at cheerfulness may simply reflect a desire by patients not to see themselves or be labelled by others as ‘depressed’ or ‘ psychiatric’ cases. The following anonymised case from our own recent practice illustrates this:

A young woman had an attack characterised by panic with prominent dissociation, unresponsiveness and limb shaking during venepuncture the day after a surgical procedure. After a period of drowsiness she was found to have a marked right hemiparesis. Investigations to search for a neurological cause of her symptoms were negative and there were positive clinical features in favour of a diagnosis of conversion disorder, including a tubular visual field and strongly positive Hoover’s sign on the affected side. The referring doctors commented on her affect, which was recorded in the notes as ‘ unconcerned’, ‘unusually cheerful’and ‘ indifferent’. Nursing staff agreed that this was her consistent affect. At interview the patient smiled frequently and did indeed appear unworried by her hemiparesis, even though she had no movement in her right arm and was unable to walk. After 20 min of interviewing, the patient was asked about her apparently cheerful demeanour. ‘Is this really how you are feeling about things or do you think you might be“putting a brave face on things”?’ The patient burst into tears and admitted being terrified both by her symptoms and by the possibility that some one was going to think she had ‘gone crazy’.

Patients often view psychiatric labels for physical symptoms as an implication that the symptoms are fabricated, imagined or relate to ‘ going mad’ (Stone et al, 2002a). In addition, patients with conversion symptoms tend to express the conviction that an organic disease is responsible for those symptoms even more strongly than patients whose symptoms are actually a result of an organic disease (Creed et al, 1990; Binzer et al, 1998). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many patients with these symptoms may try hard not to appear like ‘psychiatric’ cases. Thus, superficial cheerfulness in the face of adversity in an attempt to avoid a psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as indifference to physical disability as implied by la belle indifférence.

Attentional impairment or‘absent-mindedness’

Another difficulty in the assessment of la belle indifférence is defining for how much of the time the indifference is present and whether it is present when the patient is specifically asked about their disability. For example, a patient may appear indifferent most of the time but be quite clearly concerned when asked about their paralysed leg.

Lasegue and Janet wrote about the ‘absent-mindedness’ of ‘ hystericals’ (Janet, 1901). Lasegue considered it to be a core psychological feature related to ‘general preoccupation’. Janet described it as follows:

an exaggerated state of absent-mindedness, which is not momentary and is not the result of voluntary attention turned in one direction; it is a state of natural and perpetual absent-mindedness which prevents those persons from appreciating any other sensation except the one which for the time occupies their mind. (Janet, 1901)

Such ‘absent-mindedness’ would not be calm acceptance of disability but simply a general diminution of attention masquerading as indifference. The findings of a neuropsychological study of patients with conversion disorder have provided some support for this attentional hypothesis (Roelofs et al, 2003).

La belle indifférence as a marker of factitious disorder

One final possible explanation of la belle indifférence is that it is the affect of someone who knows that their symptoms are under conscious control and who is therefore not concerned about them. There are no data to support or refute this hypothesis.

La belle indifférence: a biological perspective

If we accept that la belle indifférence does sometimes occur in conversion disorder, are there plausible biological reasons why this may be so? Anosognosia (denial of hemiplegia) and anosodiaphoria (indifference to hemiplegia) are surprisingly common clinical features of hemispheric lesions, particularly right parietal stroke. In one study, anosognosia was found in 28% and anosodiaphoria in another 27% of 171 patients with right hemisphere stroke (Stone et al, 1993). Many authors have suggested that this may tell us something about the biology of la belle indifférence in conversion disorder. Functional neuroimaging is certainly now being used to explore the neural correlates of ‘hysterical’ motor and sensory symptoms. For example, in one study the hypoactivation of the contralateral thalamus seen in patients with hemisensory conversion symptoms recovered when the symptoms resolved (Vuilleumier et al, 2001). Perhaps similar dysfunction of parietal areas could lead to la belle indifférence. However, there are two problems with this. First, as we have already mentioned, the existence of la belle indifférence is under threat because of its poor definition and the potential for misdiagnosis. Second, part of this biological hypothesis of la belle indifférence has been based on the idea that conversion symptoms, like neglect, invariably lateralise to the left side of the body. Both a recent study (Stone et al, 2002b) and an earlier systematic review (Jones, 1908) found that there was little evidence to support this hypothesis, particularly when the symptom is paralysis.

An alternative but again unproven biological explanation for la belle indifférence is that patients with severe conversion symptoms have frontal hypoactivation (Spence et al, 2000) that could potentially contribute to a syndrome of apathy and indifference.

Other clinical signs of conversion disorder

The survival of la belle indifférence as a clinical sign over the past century should also be viewed in the context of the other clinical signs of conversion disorder/hysteria, such as collapsing weakness and ‘midline splitting’ of sensory loss. These signs have rarely been assessed in clinical studies and often show poor reliability for the identification of conversion disorder when they are tested in this way (Stone et al, 2002c). Although some clinical signs, such as Hoover’s sign for paralysis, have recently been shown in some small studies to be potentially more reliable (Ziv et al, 1998), it is perhaps not surprising that, among such untested signs, la belle indifférence has survived unchallenged for so long.

Theoretical and clinical implications

It is not difficult to see why la belle indifférence has continued to be included as a feature of conversion disorder. First, it has a romantic history providing a link between modern practice and famous historical figures such as Charcot and Freud. Giving any clinical sign a memorable name tends to heighten its profile (and doing so in French perhaps heightens it even more). Second, it is consistent with beliefs about the conversion of emotional distress into physical symptoms, which despite the lack of evidence for them are widely held. Third, theories linking la belle indifférence to right hemisphere dysfunction may have promoted the survival of the concept in an era of biological psychiatry. Fourth, it is yet another untested clinical sign among other untested clinical signs for ‘hysteria’. Finally, clinicians may not always have considered the ‘differential diagnosis’ of an apparently indifferent state. In our experience, this is most commonly manifested as an apparently cheerful patient with disability who is actually distressed but who makes strenuous efforts to avoid providing possible evidence for those seeking to make a psychiatric diagnosis, and thus to avoid the stigma associated with the latter.

The findings of this systematic review do not support the use of la belle indifférence as a clinical sign for discriminating between conversion symptoms/hysteria and organic disease. The review also highlights the poor quality of the published studies that have addressed the subject, and raises questions about what la belle indifférence actually means. We conclude that further research is required to define and study apparent indifference, in particular looking for alternative explanations for this sign. Despite its attractive name, la belle indifférence should be abandoned as a clinical sign until both its definition and its utility have been clarified.

Clinical Implications and Limitations

CLINICAL IMPLICATIONS

  1. The available evidence suggests that la belle indifférence does not discriminate between conversion symptoms/hysteria and symptoms of organic disease.

  2. La belle indifférence, defined as a lack of concern about symptoms, may be confused with other reasons for apparent indifference, most commonly strenuous efforts by a patient to appear cheerful so as to avoid being labelled as a ‘psychiatric case’.

  3. The use of the term should be abandoned until its definition and utility have been clarified.

LIMITATIONS

  1. The published studies of la belle indifférence are of poor methodological quality, are unmasked and lack operationalised criteria.

  2. The total number of patients included in the review is relatively small.

  3. Studies published before 1965 were not included in the review.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Steff Lewis for statistical advice. J.S. was funded by the Chief Scientist Office, Scotland.

  • Received June 15, 2004.
  • Revision received February 14, 2005.
  • Accepted May 3, 2005.

References

View Abstract