It’s hard to understand your own emotions if you don’t have the vocabulary. For example, you may have felt awumbuk, a term used in Papua New Guinea to describe a sense of emptiness after guests leave your home, or kaukokaipuu, Finnish for homesickness for a place you’ve never been — but without the words, even the most sensitive, introspective person can struggle to identify those feelings.
For some people, though, the words aren’t the problem. An estimated 10 percent of people have a condition called alexithymia, or a difficulty describing their feelings — and in a new study published this week in Royal Society Open Science and highlighted by STAT, psychologists discovered another layer to the condition: It also makes it more difficult for people to understand their own bodies, an ability known as interoception.
“People with alexithymia also may not know if they’re angry or just a bit hot because they ran up the stairs,” study author Rebecca Brewer, a psychologist at the University of East London, told STAT. “Or if their heart is beating harder because they just drank a cup of coffee or because they’re feeling fear.”
The study authors surveyed 208 people about how well they could pinpoint their physical and emotional states at any given time. For physical states, participants rated their agreement with statements like “I frequently forget to eat” and “I always know when I am about to vomit”; for emotional, “I can tell when I am in love from the way I feel inside” and “It’s hard to say whether I will be bored by a task.”
The link between the two categories, the researchers found, was a significant one. “We therefore suggest that rather than being specifically associated with affective impairment, alexithymia is better characterized by a general failure of interoception,” they wrote. It’s an intriguing reminder that emotions are physical, too — that the way we use bodily sensations to talk about feelings, like the burn of anger or the warm glow of happiness or a cold sense of dread, are more than just a linguistic idiosyncrasy.