The idea of a robot-like human being unable to feel emotions might seem like something out of science fiction, but if reading the title of this post brought to mind the idea of a Mr Spock type character from Star Trek then you wouldn’t be far off. This neurological condition has a name, alexithymia, and sufferers are unable to perceive, identify or exhibit emotions. They are also unable to appreciate the emotional motivations of others and may find emotions themselves as needless and irrational. Going back to the idea of the Vulcan race in Star Trek who did not feel emotions, sufferers can appear remarkably like these science fiction creations; likable and intelligent, but completely lacking in emotional responses, humourless and wooden.
How does alexithymia come about? Most cases are neurological, with deficient brain processing shutting down the emotional pathways that process emotion. In other cases it can be a self-defence measure used to cope with severe traumatic events in which the brain shuts down all emotional responses. Some research has mooted that genetics can influence the development of alexithymia, with twin studies suggesting certain individuals can be predisposed to the condition. Alexithymia is not actually classed as a mental disorder. It is only considered a personality trait that puts the person at risk of developing medical or psychological problems in the future. The severity of the condition varies greatly from person to person, which explains why the figure that alexithymia is prevalent in 10% of the general population, although shocking at first, can be understood. Not everyone who has this trait is going to be stoic and machine like.
One of the main problems for those with severe alexithymia lies in decision making. Emotions are highly important in making choices, especially when it comes to life or death decisions. Emotions have evolved to help us survive and in some cases are like a wired in early warning system. Feeling fear at the sight of a snake instinctively makes us jump away. For a more modern situation we could think of a car hurtling right towards us. The fear we feel kicks in straight away and enables us to dodge the car at the last moment. But for alexithymics they lack this emotional response, putting them at risk of making wrong decisions in important situations or slowing down their reactions to dangerous events. In normal life their impeded decision making causes them problems by the lack of emotions they feel. Usually emotions help us prioritize and look after our own self-interests. Lacking this, alexithymics tend to be highly indecisive due to the fact that their mind cannot effectively prioritize what is best or most important for them.
Another serious effect of alexithymia is the inability to form close personal relationships. Interpersonal problems are created because individuals tend to avoid close relationships or engineer relationships in which they are dependant, thereby creating a superficial relationship in which the sufferer can easily carry on with life if he decided one day to ditch all his friends, feeling nothing about his actions. In a 2008 study alexithymia was found to be related to an impairment of the demonstration of affection in relationships. This led to poorer mental health and poorer relationship satisfaction. It is not surprising that results also showed those high on the alexithymia scale showed a lack of altruism towards others and reported themselves as being only slightly affected by seeing others in pain.
Would being an emotionless human provide a better life than the one we have now? You may instinctively answer no to this, but lets think about it. Think of all the emotions you go through everyday, some good and some bad. You would be sacrificing the good but could that outweigh not feeling the bad? All of us at some point will go through heavy emotional blows in our lives and the consequences of these could last years. Many people now going through a particularly tough time would possibly jump at the chance to be emotionless. However, emotions do make us human, and to not feel happiness or passion surely cannot outweigh never having to feel sad or depressed. Answers will be very subjective, and no doubt some people out there who have been through a crippling life event would be desperate not to feel the pain and willing to sacrifice anything to be free from it.