Emotions are complex and multi-layered. They are what make us human. Could you live without communicating them?
One of the principal characters in Star Trek The Next Generation is an android, Data. Data is a synthetic life form created to be self aware and sentient. Throughout his entire story arc he strives to become human, but that was deemed impossible as he had an inability to feel emotion. This drove him on. Eventually he was fitted with an emotion chip. His new emotions proved a struggle to contain and were turned off in order to maintain performance efficiency.
This raises many questions about humanity and the nature of being human. Are we defined by our emotions? Are we ruled by our emotions? Are we trapped by our emotions? What if you had no emotions or were unaware of them?
A condition called alexithymia is defined as the inability of a person to identify and describe emotions in the self. That is not to say the person has no emotions—they are just unable to express them or are unaware of them.
Alexithymia was first identified in 1972. Originally, it was thought of as a linguistic problem. Katharina Goerlich-Dobre at RWTH Aachen University conducted research that found people with alexithymia seemed to have abnormally dense connections in the neural bridge that joins the two hemispheres of the brain resulting in a noisy signal when the emotional regions of the brain, mainly on the right, and the language areas mainly on the left, send signals to one another.
Deborah Serani, psychologist and adjunct professor at Adelphi University says “Sometimes I work with children and adults who can’t put words to their feelings and thoughts. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s more that they don’t know how.”
The core characteristics of alexithymia are a marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating.
The vast majority of people are aware of their emotions because they’ve always been there. They are an understood part of our make up. What would it be like if this awareness and understanding was taken away?
EI, or Emotional awareness or intelligence, is the ability to see one’s own emotions, but also have good insight into other people’s too. People like this use the emotional information to help guide their thinking and actions. This awareness helps a person identify their strengths and weaknesses and build self-confidence. Take this away and you take away a type of critical thinking that is really important in succeeding in life.
The emotional intelligence of a person helps guide their social awareness through an ability to understand and empathize with other people. The better you understand the emotions, needs and concerns of someone, the easier it is to understand and get along with the person.
This awareness helps to build and maintain interpersonal relationships that are strong and long lasting. Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com has an emotional intelligence that helps him to connect with the hearts and minds of his customers. He wants to understand them as best he can so he can provide them with exactly what they want, as best he can. His clear communication and self deprecating style have made him a legendary figure in the business world.
René J Muller, PhD has many experiences with alexithymic patients. “Kisha” was on of them. Writing in the Psychiatric Times Muller writes “Most patients who come to the ER after harming themselves seem eager to discuss the meaning of their behavior. Rather complex issues are clarified, often with startling insight.These patients are willing to have their initial, often self-deceiving explanations challenged and to allow the subtext of their destructive act to be interpreted to them. But after Kisha burned her arm, no words came to name the emotions that drove her to do this. She clarified nothing, for herself or for me. Kisha was alexithymic.”
In their research paper Cognitive and emotional characteristics of alexithymia: a review of neurobiological studies JK Larsen et al conclude, “The fact that there is no general agreement on how to define alexithymia seems to have hampered theoretical and empirical progress on it and related diseases and psychiatric illnesses.”