This post is in the Emotions category

Alexithymia is a term coined by Peter Sifneos in 1973 to describe a limited ability to discern or differentiate between a person’s own emotions (Sifneos, 1973) particularly subtle shades of emotions. The word means literally no words for emotions. Type I (state) alexithymia can be a temporary disturbance, Type II is considered a personality trait rather than a mental disorder. Alexithymia does not suggest that person so affected does not feel emotions, but has a reduced ability to process them them cognitively (Hill, Berthoz, & Frith, 2004). There has been much interest in this concept, as the characteristics are observed in a wide variety of definable mental health conditions. Alexithymia tends to be psychosomatic, that is it can become more evident alongside other mental factors such as anxiety, and is present in approximately 13% of the general population at any point in time (Salminen, Saarijärvi, Äärelä, Toikka, & Kauhanen, 1999).

Alexithymia is present in around 85% of persons with ASD (Hill et al., 2004, p. 234) with around 50% indicating severe impairment (Frith, 2004), and relationship between the two has come under scrutiny, as the overlap between the conditions is significant, although not entirely stable. Observable tendencies “emphasise a lack of normal interest and pleasure in people around them and a significant reduction in shared interests. Thus difficulties with social relationships are common to both Alexithymia and Asperger’s disorder” (Fitzgerald & Bellgrove, 2006). In addition, Fitzgerald notes high alexithymia scorers show a poor capacity for interpersonal fantasy. This appears to co-relate strongly with research into ASD subjects and their “unbalanced” capacity for empathy (Rogers et al., 2006). In related research with non ASD subjects, Vermeulen found that “high alexithymia scorers report lower intensity of emotional responses at the cognitive/ experiential level” (Vermeulen, Toussaint, & Luminet, 2010).

Vanheule (2007, p. 117) looked at interpersonal relationships among people with high alexithymia scores, concluding that the trait is a significant factor in social inhibition and interpersonal functioning to the exclusion of other issues. Adult Aspergers in particular tend to develop a high degree of cognitive compensation skills that is still insufficient to deal with problematic emotion processing. This can quickly lead to depression (Hill et al., 2004, p. 234) which sets the constant trait of alexithymia and the temporary state of depression against each other in a compounding relationship (Frith, 2004). Indeed Frith found that several of the subjects in her study reported depression at previously undiagnosed clinical levels.

An interesting point is that while many individuals with ASD have strong alexithymic traits, they are still capable of self-reflection, and indeed knowing that they experience difficulties in this area. Discussions around the validity of self-report studies (Berthoz & Hill, 2005; Lombardo, Barnes, Wheelwright, & Baron-Cohen, 2007) suggest that it is not the ability to monitor emotional life, but the ease of doing so that is significant. From my own point of view, I would add that knowing that one needs to cognitively monitor emotional life may also be a factor. Since becoming aware of the existence of alexithymia and a recognition of in manifestation in myself, the motivation to self monitor has increased enormously, although I find it difficult to measure my successes. Failures are somewhat easier to pinpoint.

The pertinent question then, is how does this relate to my life in general and my music in particular?

It has been speculated for some time that the the likely social function in the evolution of music (Huron, 1999/2001) suggests that individuals with impairments in social functioning are likely to have a deficit in emotional response (Levitin, 2006, p. 253). Allen et al (2009) indicated that ASD responses varied as to focus, rather than depth, but further research by the Goldsmith team using both qualitative report (Allen, Heaton, & Hill, 2010) and skin response experiments (Allen & Heaton, 2010) is now suggesting that it is not so much the experience of emotion, as the ability to articulate it that is impaired. This lends further weight to the relationship between my own alexithymia and my experience of music – or my ability to explain it.

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