Caleb is telling me about the birth of his son, now eight months old. “You know you hear parents say that the first time they looked at their kid, they were overcome with that feeling of joy and affection?” he asks me, before pausing. “I didn’t experience any of that.”
His wedding day was equally flat. To illustrate his point, he compares it to a Broadway show. In front of the stage, he says, the audience are transported by the drama. Look behind the scenes, however, and you will find the technical engineers, focusing on analysing the technicalities of the event.
Despite taking centre stage at the ceremony, he felt similarly detached from the tides of emotion swelling up in the people around him. “For me, it was a mechanical production,” says Caleb (who asked us not to use his full name). Even as his wife walked down the aisle, the only sensation he felt was his face flushing and a heaviness in his feet; his mind was completely clear of joy, happiness, or love in its conventional sense.
In fact, Caleb claims not to feel almost any emotions – good, or bad. I meet him through an internet forum for people with “alexithymia” – a kind of emotional “colour-blindness” that prevents them from perceiving or expressing the many shades of feeling that normally embellish our lives. The condition is found in around 50% of people with autism, but many “alexes” (as they call themselves) such as Caleb do not show any other autistic traits such as compulsive or repetitive behaviour.
Getting to the bottom of this emotional blindness could shed light on many serious illnesses, from anorexia and schizophrenia to chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome. More personally, stories from the “alex community” lead you to re-examine experiences that you might think you know so well. How can you fall in love, for example, when you lack all the basic tender feelings of affection that normally spark a romance?
Shells of feeling
To understand that emotional numbness, it helps to imagine emotions as a kind of Russian doll, formed of different shells, each one becoming more intricate. At the heart is a bodily sensation – the skip in your heart when you see the person you love, or the churning stomach that comes with anger.
The brain may then attach a value to those feelings – you know if it is good or bad, and if that feeling is strong, or weak; the amorphous sensations begin to take a shape and form a conscious representation of an emotion. The feelings can be nuanced, perhaps blending different types of emotions, such as bitter-sweet sorrow, and eventually we attach words to them – you can describe your despair, or your joy, and you can explain how you came to feel that way.
When alexithymia was first described in 1972, the problem was thought to centre on this last, linguistic stage: deep down people with alexithymia felt the same as everyone else, but they just couldn’t put the emotions into words. The scientists hypothesised that this may result from a breakdown in communication between the two hemispheres, preventing signals from the emotional regions, predominantly in the right, from reaching the language areas, predominantly in the left.
“You need that emotional transfer in order to verbalise what you’re feeling,” says Katharina Goerlich-Dobre at RWTH Aachen University. This could be seen, most dramatically, when surgeons tried to cure epilepsy by cutting the fibres that connect the two hemispheres; although it reduced the seizures, the patients also appeared emotionally mute as a result. Less sensationally, Goerlich-Dobre’s brain scans have found that other people with alexithymia seem to have abnormally dense connections in that neural bridge. This might create a noisy signal (a bit like a badly tuned radio) that prevents emotional cross-talk, she thinks.
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