Theory of mind and emotional awareness deficits in patients with somatoform disorders

Claudia Subic-Wrana, Manfred E. Beutel, Achim Knebel, Richard D. Lane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: To explore whether deficits are present in the mental representation of emotion signals and whether these are related to more general deficits in Theory of Mind (ToM) functioning test. To test this hypothesis in patients suffering from somatoform disorders, we used the Frith-Happé- Animations Task (AT)-an established ToM measure. We previously demonstrated that somatization in psychiatric patients is associated with decreased emotional awareness as measured by the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS). These findings suggest that individuals with decreased emotional awareness often fail to experience affective arousal as feelings and instead experience emotional distress somatically. METHODS: We administered the AT and the LEAS to 30 hospitalized patients with somatoform disorders and 30 healthy controls matched for sex, age, and educational level. Emotional awareness on the LEAS, the emotional content of AT narratives, and ToM content on the AT were assessed. RESULTS: Patients with somatoform disorders scored significantly lower on the LEAS than healthy controls. Patients also demonstrated both reduced emotional content and reduced ToM functioning on the AT compared with control subjects. Deficits in ToM functioning in patients overlapped with but were not fully explained by deficits in the emotional content of animation narratives. The combination of ToM functioning and LEAS scores permitted a correct classification of 80% of patients and 73% of controls. CONCLUSIONS: Patients with somatoform disorders requiring inpatient treatment manifest deficits in both emotional awareness and ToM functioning. These deficits may underlie the phenomenon of somatization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)404-411
Number of pages8
JournalPsychosomatic medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2010


  • Alexithymia
  • Emotional awareness
  • Somatization
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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