Accepted Paper:

Noisy hearts: auto-auscultation and sound in illness experience  


Tom Rice (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores a widely overlooked dimension of illness, namely the acoustic aspect. Heart disease patients, in particular, may become aware of unusual, often frightening sounds originating from inside them. For some patients these disturbing sounds become woven into the illness experience.

Paper long abstract:

Following my research into patient experiences and interpretations of hospital soundscapes (Rice 2003), this paper explores the soundscape within patients themselves. The internal soundscape has been an important resource for doctors since Hippocratic times. Through auscultation, the act of listening to the body (in more recent years using a stethoscope) sounds have been used to provide indications as to the health of the organs by which they are generated. But while useful to the doctor, the internal soundscape is generally quiet for a patient, and is only rarely or distantly perceived, staying on the very edge of consciousness. In some cases, however, patients can become acutely aware of strange and frequently irritating sounds originating from inside them. These patients are often suffering from heart problems, usually involving quite severe abnormalities of the heart valves. The bizarre sounds, which are repetitive and sometimes loud, inspire fear and anxiety, in some cases becoming integral to patients' sense of themselves as 'sick' or 'diseased'. The paper draws on ethnographic encounters with what is known as 'auto-auscultation' to bring sound into an anthropological consideration of the body, and initiate an acoustic exploration of ideas of health and sickness.

Panel W014
From medical pluralism to therapeutic plurality: medical anthropology and the politics of diversity, knowledge, and experience from multiple perspectives