Bring Up Alexithymia – What does it mean to be emotionally blind

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This last November, my boyfriend (now fiancé) and I celebrated our 10th year anniversary. This unmistakably leads most people to think that our relationship was always all kisses and roses, but the truth is that it has never been even close to that. Only in the last couple years has our relationship moved to a slightly more romantically inclined state. Here, let me explain, I’m not saying that he was being completely detached, uncaring or worse. He just seemed incapable of showing any signs of compassion (and no, this was no bull poop). It’s not because he didn’t want to make the effort or that he didn’t care. The reason was more likely related to the incomprehension of his feelings, and also mine for the matter. 

Feelings are complicated, but with years of practice most of us become experts in decoding their meaning. That training starts in our early years by trying to discriminate differences with physical cues like the curve of our lips, the arching of our eyebrows, the shape of our eyes, the minute twitching of our cheek, etc. After that learning stage is completed, we proceed to relate emotions to cues we’ve observed. This eventually becomes fine-tuned by the use of trial-and-error processes. We become so good at it that we even come to dismiss that some people might yet struggle with it, which is the case of people affected by Alexithymia, or emotional blindness. Alexithymia can literally be translated to “A lack of words for feelings (or emotions)”.

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In order to understand how these people may interpret emotions, we have to realize the intricate difficulties that lie behind interpreting emotions. You can actually observe the complicated nature of feelings by taking a look at scientific research exploring this topic. I may start by saying that even researchers have difficulty establishing a consensus on how many of them there are. For a very long time, we assume that there were only 8 distinct emotions: anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy and disgust. More recently a study conducted by two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner) have suggested that there may be up to 27 distinct emotions (see image below, for details). Surprisingly, they have come to exclude anger, trust, surprise (no word pun intended) and anticipation. They explained that those feelings might be different intensities of the newly considered distinct feelings. 

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Despite the difficulties demonstrated in academia for determining even the number of emotions, we still expect everyone to be geniuses at it. However, we have to open our eyes to the possibility that still about 10% of the population have drastic difficulties with both noticing or interpreting them. Alexithymic people are battling with more than just hurdles to describe feelings, they also suffer from impoverished dream recalling, emotion processing deficits, reduced expressivity of emotions, lack of daydreaming and/or fantasies and reduced sexual desire. Interestingly, I think that the reduced expressivity observed is actually part of a defence mechanism. I can imagine that having trouble identifying emotions may lead to many unsuccessful attempts in decoding emotion. This would in turn, drive people to react inadequately. As a need to save face in the future and they might decide to remain neutral in most circumstances. This would ensure that no insult, although inadvertently, could be done to the interacting participant.  

My personal involvement with Alexithymia is, as you may suspect, through the interaction with my fiancé, Manuel. Then again, I was not aware of this from the very beginning. It took me attending a course for my undergraduate degree to figure this out, which was about 4 years ago. I guess we could have called this serendipity, because meanwhile I was discovering this subject, an awareness of his lack of feeling surfaced. However, love relationships bring their lots of mystery. Manuel’s mystery was his exceptional ease at hiding his emotional deficits. Again, I don’t think it was voluntary. He wasn’t trying to be a manly man and bottling down his emotions. He just couldn’t understand his underlying motivation to avoid expressing emotions. It’s only in retrospect that I realized, I should have been able to point this out sooner. I remember one day when I was crying, I was completely devastated. I remember not knowing why I was even feeling that way. In this situation, you and I would think that Manuel would try as hard as he could to comfort me. He had another reasoning at that time; instead he proceeded to have a laugh. When we talk about what happened back then, we both cannot explain the reasoning behind this. However, my intuition is telling me that it must have been a manifestation of a deep uneasiness with the situation. I assure you that now, when it comes to comforting, he is acting like a perfect gentleman, well at least with me. Using a lot of compassion about his condition, I now inform him of the best approaches when my reactions become a bit too much for him.

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Full disclaimer: Manuel has never been formally diagnosed. Yet, we still have evidence supporting this statement. Manuel filled an online questionnaire about Alexithymia for which he scored high on most of its categories. The online questionnaire can be accessed through https://www.alexithymia.us/. But beware that this does not, by any means, replace a proper diagnosis made by a trained professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or physicians. So, if you believe you are affected by alexithymia and you feel as if it’s impacting your life for the worse, then you should definitely seek those professionals. 

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Coming back to Manuel, we did mention that he shows emotion processing deficits and reduced expression of emotions, but we haven’t talked about his experience with the other aspect of Alexithymia. If we examine the lack of daydreaming/fantasies, it manifested mostly in his inability to visualize a future with me, or any medium to long-term future for that matter. It really created some stress in the relationship, but we got through this by making an if-then statement, which I found he responds very well to. Without this push through in the form of communication (and a little leap of faith), we got through the point where the two of us agreed to get married later this year. As for the impoverished dream recalling, I can guarantee you that it couldn’t be further from the truth. He can recall dreams to such details that gets me envious of him. 

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As a bonus segment, I would like to share with you two memories where we could really notice some significant breakthroughs. About three years ago, I saw Manuel cry for the very first time. We were at his brother’s wedding and he was a groomsman, so these were obviously tears of joy. I just remember the feeling of joy and surprise I was experiencing seeing him like that. Even he could not even comprehend the full extent of his emotions at that moment. This has led him to be more interested in his feelings from this point on. At last, I want to share what I believe truly opened him up to the feelings of love. Four years ago, his brother got his first child, which meant that Manuel was becoming an uncle for the very first time. A little more than a year ago, that young niece went on to do the most precious thing. She looked in Manuel’s eyes and told him that she loved him. Manuel told me that it’s at that very moment that something switched inside of him and he felt this strong tug wanting him to express the same feeling back at her. That only would have been enough to make me the happiest girl. And, at my surprise, this change was not only directed at his niece, but at me too. Yes, he told me the three-word sentence (I love you) for the first time last year. Soon after these words were repeated once again, but this time, to his parents. 

I hope you have learnt a lot about Alexithymia and that you will be able to help others or yourself, whichever is appropriate. Remember that the difficulty brought on by this condition can be tackled using proper tools like communication as well as the openness to becoming more attentive to feelings. It is easy to dismiss emotions completely, exceptionally when it becomes so difficult and our efforts constantly end up hurting people that we care for. Still, with the right people you can find a safe way to develop a better understanding. We simply have to be true to ourselves and accept help when needed. 

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.

Bring Up Pain – Where all of this hurt comes from

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I hurt myself constantly and I am certain you do too. I am so clumsy, though I am not sure why. Maybe I try to hurry up a bit too much, I hate wasting time by lingering on any task for too long. So, for example, I often end up hitting my big toe on one of the corners of the bed base trying to get out of bed in a hurry or cutting myself on a razor haphazardly left in the bathroom drawer when trying to find my eye cream. Other than hurtful to my ego, those experiences hurtful to my body, which leads to pain. Pain is always taken for granted. You are hardly waking up every morning dreading the idea that you’ll eventually experience it, but when it does finally happen you are neither surprise. Pain is experienced by most of us, but despite its universality, very few understand how it works. Actually, can someone please tell me what the heck is pain and how can I fricking get rid of it?

It took me many years of undergraduate studies and then graduate studies to finally understand its main mechanisms, which I will now share with you. I hope that by the end of this article, you not only come to understand pain, but to appreciate it for its complexity and its vital necessity. 

When you think about pain, probably you are thinking about it the same way I did before starting my post-secondary studies. I thought pain was the result of injury. You break your skin; it hurts. You hit your foot; it hurts. You fall; it hurts. You get my point. But that doesn’t explain the headache you got last week, nor does it explain the heartburn you got last time you ate greasy food. It’s easy to point fingers at possible culprits for our pain, but it’s not really clear why it causes the pain in the first place. Why does not drinking enough water causes me headaches?

So, let’s break everything into small steps. The very first thing your body does is feeling things, this is called perception. But when the body perceives something that may be hurtful to you, it becomes known as nociception. The body can sense things that are called stimuli (plural of stimulus) which is a fancy word for sensations. Those stimuli can be of thermal (heat or cold), mechanical (pressure or tension), or chemical (inflammation or toxins) nature. Then considering our example giving earlier, hitting my big toe, and cutting myself led to nociception of a stimulus of mechanical nature. As for the headache and the heartburn, it was from chemical nature. For the headache, there was probably not enough oxygen and for the heartburn, too much acid. 

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Now let’s look at this nociception closer. The changes are perceived by some detectors that we call pain receptors, or more specifically nociceptors. Those nociceptors can differ greatly from each other. They can have different endings which make them able to detect specific types of stimulus or they can also vary in size. The latter will influence how fast the nerve will carry the signal to the brain. It’s this difference in size that makes you sense two pain waves. For example, when you hit your toe. You first grab your toe, but it really was a few seconds after you grabbed it that the intense and sharp sensation started kicking in. This is because the large nerves carried the information related to location and nature of the pain faster than the smaller nerves. It’s those smaller nerves that were responsible to carry the information related to the intensity and emotional nature of the pain and is delayed. This whole process that we just went through is called transduction. 

After transduction there is conduction, which is for us step 2. This step explains how the signal is actually sent to the brain. It will probably not be any news to you, the signal is carried by nerves, or neurons. All these neurons are organized into something that resembles a family tree. In your family tree there are your siblings, your cousins and obviously yourself. All of them serve as an analogy for the first-order neuron or most commonly called primary afferents. As suspected, they stem from wherever you can feel (skin, ears, organs, etc.), and they end at the spinal cord. In your family tree, there are also your parents, your aunts, and your uncles. Those are like the second-order neurons, there are generally fewer than the previous group. They are located in your spinal cord. Then, you have your grandparents. Those are like the third-order neurons and are present from the end of your spinal cord to your brain. Simple, isn’t it? 

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After the signal has reached through all the three levels of neurons and finally the brain, then there is transmission. Transmission refers to the mechanism to which all different information will be sent to their appropriate processing section. Then an output signal will be produced and will be modulated depending on its intensity and its relevance. If the intensity is too much and is not relevant, the signal may be tuned down, or reciprocally up if the situation is reversed. So that makes up two steps: Transmission and Modulation.

The very last step is Perception, and it relates not to the initial perception we introduced when we talked about transduction, but to the final products that leads to a reaction. It is at that moment you grab your toe

So, if I try to summarize everything, first you feel; secondly, the signal goes through three levels of neuron up to the brain; thirdly, the signal is interpreted by the brain; fourthly, the signal is tuned by the brain and lastly it is sent back to the appropriate location to create a reaction. Normally, it takes all those steps to induce pain, but there are some cases where the pain seems to appear out of thin air. That pain is often said to be neuropathic. Where signals are generated in the absence of stimulus detection which is common in chronic muscular diseases. 

Reversely, there is another disease that leads to the inability to generate pain. Doesn’t that sound wonderful, right? People affected by congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) would disagree. Pain is a protective mechanism that forces you to have a reaction when faced to a potentially harmful stimulus. Without pain, most people with CIPA will die before the age of 25. They usually end up burning themselves seriously, biting off their tongues or scratching to the bone, which could eventually lead to infection, which can also lead to death. These are only examples of things that may happen to you without the ability to generate pain. Pain is so important since it is there to avoid putting yourself under unnecessary harm. 

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Pain can also be split into two categories: acute and chronic. We talk about acute pain when dealing with a situation that is sudden and ephemeral (that doesn’t last in time). In contrast, we talk about chronic pain when it’s persistent in time, usually more than three months. So all previously mentioned pain examples were actually all acute, apart from chronic muscular disease. It’s neuropathic nature which tends to be difficult to treat, renders it a chronic disorder. Fibromyalgia is a good example for this, to learn more read Bring Up Fibromyalgia. 

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Now to avoid pain you have different strategies. You can simply take some analgesics like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), and if the pain is really intense, morphine. There is also the placebo effect that is really strong in helping face pain. Grabbing your foot when you hit it also greatly helps since it creates some natural inhibition of the pain through a process called the gate control theory. Mindfulness has also been shown to be helpful by redirecting our attention to external stimuli. Obsessing over our pain is detrimental. At best, it blocks the downregulation of the pain and at worst it promotes its upregulation.

Now that you know where pain comes from, my advice to you is to accept it, to cherish it, to listen to it and to respond to it with kindness. Pain is a necessary evil that is an intricate part of life. Whenever you feel pain, remember that you are living, and most important, that you are living science. 

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.

Bring Up The Beginning – How it all started

I remember the night just before my first day of school, I was totally terrified. I had a nightmare that I was lost in the school and no one was willing to help me find my way back. They would instead ask me what was wrong with me. I was panicked. When I finally woke up, I unsurprisingly didn’t want to go to school. However, I have never mentioned it to my mother, since I knew what she would tell me. She would tell me to snap out of it and that I would have to go to school like any of my siblings. Let’s say that I never felt like there were any place for drama, or at least emotions, at home. So, I kept that detail for me.

Turns out maybe this dream may have been a warning for what was to come, but scientifically speaking it couldn’t. Reasonably speaking, it was probably only the expression of my worries. I always had trouble with changes and that was essentially an enormous one. There are probably multiple factors to account for my difficulties adapting to school. However, I think that the strongest factor was my emotional over-expressiveness. Difficulty controlling the expression of my feelings possibly made me a very easy target for intimidation. And so, by the middle of elementary school, I started getting bullied by a guy and that lasted through most of my high school years as well. This could probably have been enough for most people to become bitter about school and rebel against the institution, or, at the very least, produce a strong desire to quit attending school. Fortunately for me, this was far from the feeling I had toward school. 

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Let’s say that school was both a nightmare and my safe haven. Well, you may understand why this was a nightmare, but it isn’t all that clear why this was my very safe haven. You might think that home should have been my safe haven, but it wasn’t. At home, I never felt like I was doing enough. Everything I was doing was judged to be done badly. Additionally, things I was craving for like admiration or, at the very least, respect was nowhere to be found. On the contrary, at school, there existed both admiration and respect. I could make my teachers proud by using my knowledge to answer questions and when I answered correctly, they showed me praises. But moreover, there was no name calling or insults thrown. But sadly, I can’t say that all teachers were like that. I had one teacher in elementary school that picked on me. To this day, I regret not standing up to him, but what could I have done? I was only a kid.

Then again, most teachers were all very supportive, so by rules of generalization, I loved my teachers. Yet, what I like the most about school was its seemingly infinite source of information. Information that could potentially be knowledge. Knowledge was ultimately my escape. My escape from boredom, from loneliness, from intimidation and from injustice. As a kid, I perceived that knowledge could help solve all problems. With it, I could extrapolate answers to behaviours or to just any basic fundamental questions. My curiosity knew no boundaries and with curiosity arose multiple questions. School then became necessary and provided me with endless possibilities to see the world through another lens.

One question that I’ve had and that is now left mostly answered was the reasons behind my childhood harassment. I always wondered why children could be so hurtful and then I realized that one major difference between children and adults is their openness to differences. Pre-teenager and, to a lesser extent, teenagers have a strong desire to fit within a group (sense of belonging). They do it in such a way that their appearances, their thoughts, and their experiences must be kept as similar as to the rest of the gang. However, by the time they leave high school, they recognize that a quest for normality is vain and they have to develop a better awareness of themselves (identity). For example, the eight-year-old me talking science to classmates was probably interpreted as me pointing out what they ignored. This fact was enough to confirm that I didn’t fit in. Alternatively, adults realize that one human in its lifetime can’t learn everything the world has to offer. Most won’t feel offended or confronted by an individual possessing information that they don’t have.

Then, from my quest to gain knowledge came a natural appreciation toward science and eventually an admiration and a love for it. I was first introduced to science with a special book: a science encyclopedia for children. This book was lying in the bookshelves in my bedroom and since I had to stay in bed after waking up in the morning, I decided to open it. This book was perfectly designed and got me to be amazed by everything nature had to offer. Two articles really grabbed my attention. The first talked about the size of the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, which can measure up to three buses long. The second introduced the difference between the terms: storm, lightning, and thunder. 

I absolutely rejoice in acquiring knowledge, but acquiring it was only part of the joy it brought me. The most satisfaction I got was when I decided to share the knowledge. I genuinely thought that people would like to know everything as much as I did. Turns out this couldn’t be far enough away from the truth. It took me a few years to realize this. With this cluelessness came insults from my family and my friends telling me that I was a weirdo, that I talked too much, and that I was a big know-it-all. All that hurt led me to change my approach to science communication. With time I learnt that science can be communicated more easily to people that are truly interested and that interest is most often expressed through asking questions. If you pay attention to the questions, you can be there to answer them and thus communicating knowledge. My second realization is that too much science content on the internet right now is overly specific and needs previously acquired material to understand it. 

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I believe that this leads people to believe science is only accessible for educated people, but the truth is that everyone is doing science. Moreover, everyone is doing science every day. Your body is constantly doing chemistry by measuring blood sugar content and releasing corresponding levels of insulin. It is also doing physics every time you walk or run. It is also doing physiology whenever you experience pain or mathematics whenever you purchase something in a store. Science is not for an elite population; it’s for everyone. 

This is the reason Bring Up Science got created. My goal is to bring light to the science behind different elements of our life. From the first leaves in the trees in spring to the way we perceive pain. Science is a beautiful thing that everyone deserves to enjoy and that might just start with Bring Up Science. So, no matter where you are right now, what you’re doing or even if you know the fundamental principles of physics. What’s important is that you open yourself up to the amazing potential and accessibility of Science. It will make you appreciate life in a different perspective and maybe allow you to see all of yourself as a beautiful orchestra of science.

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.