Blind to Feelings

24. September 2007

They feel neither happiness nor sadness. They know no jealousy or hate. They have never been in love - those people with a blocked perception of feelings. Science calls this disease alexithymia, "blindness to feelings". According to the study of the universities of Leipzig and Duesseldorf, every tenth person is blind to feelings.

Alexithymia ,as described in the "Pschyrembel", is the "inability to perceivefeelings sufficiently, to describe them or to distinguish them from physicalconsequences of a high pressure situation." In short: A disturbed access to theown emotional experience.

No matter whether it'sanger, joy, sadness, happiness, hate, positive or negative feelings: Alexithmiapatients cannot name it or sort it in. Just like a deaf in a concert… "Thosepeople talk about feelings like a color-blind talking about colors", says theneuro-scientist and psychosomatist Professor Matthias Franz of the Heinrich-Heine-UniversityDuesseldorf . He delves into that particular phenomenon with the potentialto maneuver a person off the social platform rapidly: Hardly any otherdysfunction makes sustainable harmony between people more difficult thanalexithymia.

Emotional illiteracy

The door to their own worldof feelings remains closed to alexithymia patients. They would rather get sickbefore they feel. The risk of depressions, psychosomatically caused physical malfunctions,high blood pressure and pains is dramatically higher for people suffering fromalexithymia. Up to forty percent of the patients with chronic pains showalexithymic characteristics. Also numerous patients with somatization problemsshow distinct problems in emotional expressivity. For decades it remained asecret just how this develops. In the meantime, neuropsychologists are gettingon the track of the roots. According to their findings, alexithymia is not aninherent personality disorder, but results from a trauma sufferedfrom early in life.

Studies show that theaccess to the emotional experience is fundamentally shaped by the relationshipto mother and father. If the relationship to those centrally importantpsychological parents disturbed in the early years of development, it does havefar-reaching consequences. As for example alexithymia: Persons concerned had toacquiesce deficits for the most part during the phase of early emotionallearning. Next to a traumatic childhood, other terrible experiences can lead toalexithymia. Here the blockage of the ability of mental perception serves as aself-protection: The "turning-off" of the feeling level helps to better sustainsuffered traumatization.

Make feelings visible

Imaging procedures helplifting the curtain of the emotional dark. Positron-emission-tomography and magneticresonance imaging (fMRI) reveal astonishing details, just how the brainperceives and processes emotions – valuable information for alexithymiaresearch. People blind to their feelings show functional changes in areas ofthe brain serving the central processing of emotional stimuli: Characteristicsimplying an impaired evaluation and symbolization ability of accordinginformation.

There is every indicationthat the limbic system is not wired correctly with the prefrontal cortex in peopleblind to feelings. Those results showed for example in measurings of the bloodflow in the brain while the patient was supposed to think of an extremeemotional situation as e. g. the death of a close person. The reactions in thelimbic system, the center of the processing of feelings, were fractional. Butthe frontal lobe showed lively activities. This part of the brain is capable ofcutting off the transmission of emotional stimuli. This could be theneurobiological reason for blindness to feelings. Accordingly, alexithymia isnot the lack of feelings, but their suppression. Scientists of the GreifwaldUniversity found another explanation yet. According to their findings, the flowof information between the two halves of the brain is disturbed. Informationstored at different places obviously cannot be brought together any more, asProfessor Harald Freyberger, head of the Psychiatrischen Klinik der Universität Greifswald, explainsthe results.

Those as well as other results of scientists let not just alexithymia appear ina different light, but also depressions, schizophrenia and other psychological diseases. And it uncovers other potential treatmentstrategies. Whether it will help people suffering from blindness to feelings ornot – nobody knows. But according to Professor Franz "even the brains of adultsare incredibly versatile." All hopes are currently built on conversational-,body- or group therapy – opening the doors to the world of feelings again.

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