Posts Tagged ‘Alexithymia’

Know Thyself

March 12, 2018

Know Thyself is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since that chapter was written, there have been significant advances in the study of the emotions, some of which have been reported in this blog. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain” was revolutionary. Relevant blog posts can be found by entering “Lisa Feldman Barrett” into the search box of the healthy memory blog. The following is taken directly from the post “How Emotions Are Made”:

Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flue virus.

After that relevant digression, we return to Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence.”

Metamood is a term psychologists use to refer to awareness of one’s emotions, and metacognition refers refers to an awareness of thought process. Self-awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, overreacting and amplifying what is perceived. Instead, it is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions. The awareness of emotions is the fundamental emotional competence on which others, such as emotional self-control. build. Self-awareness means being “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about the mood.” Self-awareness can be nonjudgmental or judgmental to include, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I’m thinking good things to cheer up,” or “Don’t think about it.”

The psychologist John Mayer describes three distinctive styles for attending to and dealing with their emotions.

*Self-aware. Aware of their moods as they are having them, these people understandably have some sophistication about their emotional lives. Their clarity about emotions may undergird other personality traits: they are autonomous and sure of their own boundaries, are in good psychological health, and tend to have a positive outlook on life. When they get into a bad mood, they don’t ruminate and obsess about it, and are able to get out of it sooner. In short, their mindfulness helps them manage their emotions.

*Engulfed. These are people who often feel swamped by their emotions and helpless to escape them, as though their moods have taken charge. They are mercurial and not very aware of their feelings, so that they are lost in them rather than having some perspective. As a result, they do little to try to escape bad moods, feeling that they have no control over their emotional life. They feel overwhelmed and emotionally out of control. Such people definitely need to practice mindfulness and meditation, and perhaps consider seeking professional help.

*Accepting. While these people are often clear about what they are feeling, they also tend to be accepting of their moods, and so don’t try to change them. There seem to be two branches of the accepting type: those who are usually in good moods and so have little motivation to change them, and people who, despite the clarity about their moods, are susceptible to bad ones but accept them with a laissez-faire attitude, doing nothing to change them despite their distress—a pattern found among, say, depressed people who are resigned to despair. This latter group should be aware that there are techniques for changing and controlling their moods, should they want to.

It is possible not to have feelings. Psychiatrists call it alexithymia. These people lack words for their feelings. They seem to lack feelings altogether, although this may actually be because of they inability to express emotion rather than from an absence of emotion altogether.

Although no one can as yet say for sure what causes alexithymia, Dr. Sifneos, who coined the term, proposes a disconnection between the limbic system and the neocortex, particularly its verbal centers, which fits well with what we are learning about the emotional brain.

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April 22, 2012

To this point, the dimensions of the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 that have received more detailed consideration, Outlook, Resilience, Social Intuition, and Context Sensitivity are fairly obvious dimensions of emotional style. However, some might be confused by Self-Awareness. How could someone not be aware of their emotions? There is a condition, alexithymia, in which people have difficulty identifying and describing their feelings. In fact, there is a scale to assess the severity of this problem. Understand that these people have feelings, the problem lies in identifying and describing these feelings. And it should be apparent what kinds of difficulties one could have if they do not understand what they are feeling.

There is a brain structure, the insula, which receives signals from the viscera and the somatosensory cortex, that is at the root of this problem. High levels of activity in the insula support high degrees of self-awareness, and low levels of activity in the insula result in low levels of self-awareness. Researchers have found through neuroimaging techniques that people who are more accurate in estimating their heart rate have larger insula. The larger the insula, the more accurate the estimate. Now people who have devoted a large portion of their lives to meditation, Buddhist monks for example, not only are aware of their heart rate, but are actually able to slow their heart rates to what some of us might regard as alarming.

This deficiency in understanding ones physiological responding goes beyond emotions. Some people suffer from chronic dehydration because they are unaware that they are thirsty. They have to be reminded to follow a strict schedule of hydration, even when they don’t feel like it, to avoid dehydration.

It should be noted that self-awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable. It is possible to have “too much” self-awareness. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity can produce excessive degress of body awareness that sometimes result in panic disorder and hypochondria. People with these disorder are hypersensitive to pulse, respiration rate, temperature, and other estimates of anxiety. The tend to overestimate and over interpret.. They might feel a slight uptick in heart rate and fear an impending heart attack.

There is one more emotional dimensions that needs to be discussed in more detail, attention. The next blog post will deal with attention. After that, techniques for modifying emotional states that Dr. Goldman has developed will be discussed.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.