Testing Emotional Awareness, Alexithymia, And Psychophysiology In A Rare Patient Who Could Not Experience Emotions

Some people are much more aware of their emotions than others. Emotion researchers often refer to this characteristic as “trait emotional awareness” (tEA). People who self-report having low emotional awareness (e.g., that they do not understand their own emotions) are also referred to as having “alexithymia,” which literally means “not having words for emotions.”

In this paper, we describe a rare individual (“Jane”) who said she has never been able to feel emotions her entire life. Yet, she did show some outward signs of emotions. For example, while talking with a psychiatrist about some of her marriage problems, her eyes began to well up with tears; yet, she said she felt no sadness and stated that her eyes just “do this” sometimes. To understand this unusual phenomenon better, we asked her to participate in a study.

In the first set of tests, we found that she had very high alexithymia scores and very low tEA scores. She also did not notice the changes in emotional intensity that most people feel in response to emotional pictures. However, Jane performed well on a test that measured her ability to recognize emotions in the facial expressions of others and she was also able to accurately recognize whether emotional pictures were pleasant or unpleasant.

In a second set of tests, we found that her face and body did not respond in typical ways to emotional images. While healthy people show microscopic increases in sweating in response to emotionally intense images, Jane did not show this automatic sweating response. Her facial muscle responses were also unusual. While most people show specific facial muscle responses when shown negative vs. positive images, several (but not all) of Jane’s facial muscles responded in a different pattern.

These test results support Jane’s claim that she did not have normal emotional experience. As she did not automatically react to emotional pictures with any intensity or with typical facial expressions, this could help explain why she didn’t report feeling anything. On the other hand, she could still recognize emotions well in others, which is less common in people with lower tEA scores. So she seemed to understand emotions but not to recognize or feel them in herself.

This case study shows how different parts of emotional responses can come apart (e.g., crying but not feeling sad, recognizing emotional unpleasantness but not intensity) and that a life without emotional experience is possible.

These findings are described in the article entitled The importance of identifying underlying process abnormalities in alexithymia: Implications of the three-process model and a single case study illustration, recently published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

About The Author

RS
Ryan Smith

Dr. Ryan Smith’s main research interests include understanding how conscious and unconscious emotion-related processes are realized within the brain, and in how these processes may be altered in mood and anxiety disorders. The primary research methods Dr. Smith employs in his research are neuroimaging and computational modeling. A major overarching focus is to characterize differences between mentally healthy and unhealthy individuals with the goal of improving diagnosis and treatment selection within psychiatry and clinical psychology.

Speak Your Mind!

READ THIS NEXT

My Fungicide Isn’t Working! How Super Pathogens Survive Chemical Control In Potato Crops

For centuries, potato has been one of the most consumed crops worldwide and the basis of the diet in many countries. Unfortunately, other organisms also enjoy making a living out of this tuber.  This is the case of the oomycete Phytophthora infestans (PI) which is responsible for a disease known as Potato Late Blight (PLB)—the most […]

Cell Membrane: Function And Definition

The cell membrane is a thin membrane which encases the cytoplasm of the cell, and holds the cytoplasm (as well as the cell’s organelles) within it, separating the interior of the cell from the outside environment. The cell membrane is semi-permeable, meaning that it allows certain substances to move into the cell while it keeps […]

Predicting Major Depressive Disorder In Disaster Victims

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a relatively common psychiatric illness that is one of the major sources of disability worldwide and may lead to suicide. MDD is a well-known consequence of disaster trauma, typically second in psychiatric frequency only to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Disaster studies using full diagnostic assessments have identified MDD in 14% […]

Elevated Temperature And Lower Ocean pH May Limit Larval Supply In The Florida Stone Crab

Many coastal watersheds have suffered from decades of urbanization which has diverted stormwater, carrying nutrient pollution, into coastal ocean waters. The influence of land-based runoff will likely accelerate the local rate of ocean acidification — decreasing seawater pH — in many coastal areas. Worldwide, oceans are acidifying and warming due to excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, […]

On The Shoulders Of Giants, Part 1: Henry K. Beecher And The Placebo Effect

When Robert Merton (1910 – 2003) dissected the allegory that we all are “standing on the shoulders of giants” — based on a much older saying by Bernhard of Chartres, according to John of Salisbury in 1159, often falsely attributed to Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who popularized it — (On the shoulders of Giants, published 1965), […]

Inhibiting Prostaglandin E2 Receptor EP3 May Reduce Brain Injury After Hemorrhagic Stroke

Intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH), otherwise known as hemorrhagic stroke, accounts for approximately 15% of all strokes. In this type of stroke, high blood pressure or external brain trauma causes thin-walled arteries in the brain to tear. Blood that leaks through this rupture causes the primary damage after ICH. As blood spills into the brain, the area […]

The Global Health Problem Of Household Air Pollution

Most people living in the high-income world may be unaware of a “silent killer” that is estimated to cause over 2 million deaths annually.1 “Household air pollution,” generated from cooking with polluting fuels in inefficient stoves, is breathed in by approximately 3 billion people globally, primarily in low- and middle-income countries (Figure 1).2 The stoves that […]