The “lacking words for emotions” definition for Alexithymia causes real diagnostic problems. Like autism, this is not a “medical” definition: it’s a behavioral observation on the part of the individual, and those people who interact with him or her.
The ongoing “problem” with this subjective type of social construct, is that there is no standard for “the normal behavior of having emotion words” that has been established, or can be established, medically or scientifically. And yet, studies BEGIN with the assumption that a “normal human use of emotion words” exists, the proof of which is never presented.
The LABELS that have been applied to people (autistic, alexithymic), are based on arbitrary opinion as to whether or not that person is “abnormal”. These labels are believed to be both “gospel truth” within a particular academic framework and “coincidentally” (magically) scientifically established!
This is not to claim that “lacking words for emotions” is not an observable fact in individual experience; but – the label is not the behavior, nor its “cause”. (Both autism and Alexithymia are negative labels – the presumption is that this behavior is a failure of a person to be normal) When the label is “substituted” for the actual experience, the research is de facto “tainted” – and we’re off on one of those journeys again into a fascinating distortion (sarcasm) of physical reality by the socially-determined constructs with which a particular culture “filters” information and ideas about human behavior.
There are entire cultures and subcultures which simply do not use language “in the prescribed way” that Americans claim to be universally applicable and defining of what it means to be human. The “factoid” that some people do not use “words” to label “inner states” is not legitimate grounds for “testing” whether or not a person qualifies as a legitimate member of the species Homo sapiens or is a “reject” to be pulled off the factory assembly line. (Strictly, in American psychology, Homo sapiens refers to an imaginary socially-acceptable white person or “minority” facsimile.
My personal curiosity about “lacking words for emotions” focusses on a question of LANGUAGE. We are told by “psychologists” that verbal language is only one type of communication that humans rely on, but then, this rich source of different abilities is ignored. Magic words are the foundation of Western Civilization; words “build” its social structures and are the tools for controlling human behavior. Therefore judgments about human status, especially in relation to “dumb animals” and “dumb people” is zeroed in on verbal communication as definitive of a “valid” socially-trained person. A “real human”.
Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception
It has been proposed that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with difficulties perceiving the internal state of one’s body (i.e., impaired interoception), causing the socio-emotional deficits which are a diagnostic feature of the condition. However, research indicates that alexithymia – characterized by difficulties in recognizing emotions from internal bodily sensations – is also linked to atypical interoception. Elevated rates of alexithymia in the autistic population have been shown to underpin several socio-emotional impairments thought to be symptomatic of ASD, raising the possibility that interoceptive difficulties in ASD are also due to co-occurring alexithymia. Following this line of inquiry, the present study examined the relative impact of alexithymia and autism on interoceptive accuracy (IA). Across two experiments, it was found that alexithymia, not autism, was associated with atypical interoception. Results indicate that interoceptive impairments should not be considered a feature of ASD, but instead due to co-occurring alexithymia.
Interoception, the perception of the internal state of one’s body, has been relatively neglected by clinical psychology and neuroscience. However, there is renewed interest in interoception, driven by biologically-grounded predictive coding models of interoception (Seth, 2013) and realization of the clinical relevance of atypical interoception (Bird & Cook, 2013). Atypical interoception has been associated with various illnesses, such as obesity, anxiety and depression (Barrett & Simmons, 2015), but perhaps the most well-developed interoceptive theory is that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), particularly the social symptoms characteristic of the disorder, is a result of (oxytocin-mediated) interoceptive dysfunction (Quattrocki & Friston, 2014). (Wow! Interoceptive dysfunction is caused by interoceptive dysfunction!)
This is a perfect mess of word magic…
“Lacking words for emotions” could be an inherent characteristic of visual brain organization, which is not oriented to generic social labels and verbal language, but rather, relies on “sensory” perception of the environment.
1. It is assumed that a person is “conscious of” some, all, or none of the “bodily sensations” going on inside his or her body. What are these “bodily sensations” and how is someone aware of them? Doesn’t this assertion contradict the fact that most of our “functional” physiology is automatic, and therefore not conscious?
2. It’s assumed that a person can know what “internal bodily sensations” MEAN (in subjective social terms). Words are how we “think” consciously; to make something conscious is to label it with words. Attaching words to sensations is how humans label sensations in order to convey the “social meaning” of those sensations to other humans.
I’m hungry: feed me, can be, and is, communicated by non-verbal language, by every infant. As the infant brain grows into a word-based learning stage, “emotion words” are taught to him or her, so that the “caregiver” can identify what is “going on”. Emotions-as-words do not exist in the body; emotions are not “things”. The “sensation” is physical, just as it is in other species. Emotion words have no meaning or function outside of human-to-human interaction.
3. If the “emotionword” existed in the body, brain or wherever… (location of emotions have been and are attributed to “body parts” from blood, the heart, kidneys, the spleen, sex organs, the brain, and of course to supernatural external sources – the soul, etc) then no animal could survive. In fact, the assertion that animals “have no emotions” is true: animals do not describe their “reactions to the environment, internal or external” using human verbal language. They do, however, react to the environment, with behavior that promotes survival, just as we do.
The sensation of hunger becomes direct activity to satisfy hunger. The adult bird procures food directly, without “asking” someone to feed it, but young birds “ask” to be fed by the parents. Can the incessant squawking of baby birds be ignored as the “language” that conveys “hunger”, the bodily sensation, to the parents?
The question becomes: If a human child does not “embrace” or learn verbal language as a means to convey “need” to other humans, then what “language” is that child using? Why do humans not recognize the use of the “other” human languages that are known to exist and to be in constant use by humans? Why is “verbal response” the only acceptable means of interaction, according to supposed “experts” in the study of human behavior?
The “language” that excels in communicating “inner bodily states” is music / dance. We recognize this universally. The visual artist can “speak to” the viewer from an otherwise inaccessible time and place. For hundreds of thousands of years, these were the languages that “created” human meaning and culture, and still are.