Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"What is it Like to Never Have Felt an Emotion?"

Asks the BBC in this article of the same name sent to me by a reader about alexithymia. It makes some interesting points. I'll highlight a few.

The causes:

Today, it seems clear that there may be many types of alexithymia. While some might have trouble expressing emotions, others (like Caleb) might not even be conscious of the feelings in the first place. Richard Lane, at the University of Arizona compares it to people who have gone blind after damage to the visual cortex; despite having healthy eyes, they can’t see the images. In the same way, a damaged neural circuit involved in emotional processing might prevent sadness, happiness or anger from bursting into consciousness. (Using the analogy of the Russian doll, their emotions are breaking down at the second shell of feeling – their bodies are reacting normally, but the sensations don’t merge to form an emotional thought or feeling.) “Maybe the emotion gets activated, you even have the bodily responses, but it happens without you being consciously aware of the emotion,” he says.

Along these lines, a few recent fMRI scanning studies have found signs of a more basic perceptual problem in some types of alexithymia. Goerlich-Dobre, for instance, found reduced grey matter in areas of the cingulate cortex serving self-awareness, potentially blocking a conscious representation of the emotions. And AndrĂ© Aleman at the University Medical Centre in Groningen, the Netherlands, detected some deficits in areas associated with attention when alexithymics look at emotionally charged-pictures; it was as if their brains just weren’t registering the feelings. “I think this fits quite well with [Lane’s] theory,” says Aleman – who had initially suspected other causes. “We have to admit they are right.”

Interestingly, this connection to other physical disorders:

Further work could also pin down the puzzling link to so-called “somatic disorders”, such as chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome, that seem to be unusually common in people with alexithymia. Lane suggests it’s down to a kind of “short-circuit” in the brain, created by the emotional blindness. Normally, he says, the conscious perception of emotions can help damp down the physical sensations associated with the feeling. “If you can consciously process and allow the feeling to evolve – if you engage the frontal areas of the brain, you recruit mechanisms that have a top down, modulatory effect on bodily processes,” says Lane. Without the emotional outlet, however, the mind could get stuck on the physical feelings, potentially amplifying the responses. As Goerlich-Dobre puts it: “They are hypersensitive to bodily perceptions, and not able to focus on anything else, which might be one reason why they develop chronic pain.” (Some studies, have in fact found that alexes are often abnormally sensitive to bodily sensations, although other experiments have found conflicting evidence.)

My neurotherapist actually suggested that what I perceive to be food allergies (I basically eat the same 10 foods for 90% of my nutrition) might actually be emotional distress that I am not aware of but that is still registering physically in these negative ways. 

The way one of the sufferers connects with emotions is often an academic exercise:

Physical sensations certainly seem to dominate Caleb’s descriptions of difficult events, such as periods of separation from his family. “I don’t miss people, as far as I can tell. If I’m gone, and don’t see someone for a long period, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “But I do feel physically a kind of pressure or stress when I’m not around my wife or my child for a couple of days.”
***Caleb, too, has visited a cognitive behavioural therapist to help with his social understanding, and through conscious effort he is now better able to analyse the physical feelings and to equate it with emotions that other people may feel. Although it remains a somewhat academic exercise, the process helps him to try to grasp his wife’s feelings and to see why she acts the way she does.

And finally the obligatory knock on sociopaths, because heaven forbid someone confuse your total lack of emotions and affective empathy with something as so way different as psychopathy:

Ultimately, he wants to emphasise that emotional blindness does not make one unkind, or selfish. “It may be hard to believe, but it is possible for someone to be cut off completely from the emotions and imagination that are such a big part of what makes us humans,” he says. “And that a person can be cut off from emotions without being heartless, or a psychopath.”


  1. I suggest that M.E. get off this neroscience obsession.
    The drab science goes over the head of most people, and it's so much
    mubo jumbo anyway.
    I'm reading a book on James Holmes, and he worked in this very field, with the
    best of the best. No one picked up on his problems, and he himself got high
    marks on his presentations, all the while slipping into madness-with the help of
    Don't be flumixed by fancy technology. My old fashioned toothbrush works just
    as well as an electric toothbrush.

  2. But psychopaths feel lots of things, especially pity, for themselves? Filled with emotions actually.

  3. So I think this is where the concept of being a psychopath gets in the way of understanding the psychopath experience in a way that allows us all to connect. If psychopaths didn't experience emotions, wouldn't they behave like live robots? They'd be eery, right - like autistism sufferers. But that's not how they come off, because they evade detection for a longer or shorter time.

    I recently saw a quote about learning from punishment, "... from the psychopath's viewpoint they are not 'mistakes'" -- which hits the nail on the head. That statement helps people to understand what it is like to be one of these people.

    If you have a kid that does bad things, gets spanked, doesn't learn, does bad things, get beat with a belt, doesn't learn, does bad things, gets hit until he's bleeding, etc. But still doesn't learn -- he clearly isn't seeing stuff as a mistake.

    Although that's taken as proof of being a psychopath (not learning from punishment) - look at normal people. From moment to moment they feel bad about this or that thing. Oh I should be a better worker. Oh I'm going to hell for doing this bad thing I did. Oh I need this person to think this or that about me. Trying to achieve the goal of the moment never leads to permanent satisfaction. But people again and again strive for things.

    That's a case of not learning from negative feedback!

    The problem that normal people seem to have is that the psychopath isn't moved emotionally and in the same way as normal people. That's about it - there's a different map of circumstances to feelings. There's a different set of goals/desires. There's a different set of thoughts. But the basic cycle of wanting something and chasing after it and it not providing ultimate satisfaction (so repeat the cycle) is the same.

    It seems clear to me that normal people want to - again and again - judge others, find them lacking and feel better about themselves as a result. Psychopaths are "useful" to them for this reason.

    1. So if you want to see some of this in action, please look at these videos and try to figure out what it would be like to be the undercover officer (yellow shirt) who shoots the guy pointblank in the leg.

      He is an undercover special agent - fearless and apparently ruthless. Some think he's a bad guy. Some think he's a hero.

      What's going on in his mind? What is he feeling? Whatever it is, it probably isn't like your normal guy - because a normal person wouldn't be able to do that job.

      Is he emotionless? I doubt it. After that incident he might have been glad they got the guy they got. Or perhaps he was frustrated that so many guys got away. Or maybe he was proud that he did such a good job, unlike his teammates, who don't try as hard.

      I really don't know - but undercover agents typically have sociopathic traits, but there's nothing about watching them that would suggest they are emotionless.

  4. This is off topic but what in the heck can you do to cure the boredom???! I'm bored out of my mind and I don't know what to do. To me, this is worse than anything. I think I need someone to toy with.

    1. Extreme sports, mild, recreational drug use, different forms of thrill seeking, a lot of kink, and a wide variety of hobbies are what keep this at bay for me, but it is a constant "struggle".

  5. I think I may have a touch of alexithymia, but unlike Caleb, I am not particularly sensitive to physical discomfort. I'm actually "numb" much of the time, and have an unusually high threshold of tolerance for stress and pain.

    I read something recently that resonated with me: "The more primal an emotion (think anger and lust), the more I feel it.

    On topic, marijuana helps me to feel things to which I am normally insensitive.

  6. Excellent post filled with energetic words and thoughts.It makes me realize the energy of words and pictures.By writing and practice one can keep the skill of writing. If once it lost it will never comeback as soon.


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