The Specificity of the Link Between Alexithymia, Interoception, and Imitation

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Alexithymia is a subclinical condition traditionally characterized by difficulties identifying and describing one’s own emotions. Recent formulations of alexithymia, however, suggest that the condition may result from a generalized impairment in the perception of all bodily signals (“interoception”). Interoceptive accuracy has been associated with a variety of deficits in social cognition, but recently with an improved ability to inhibit the automatic tendency to imitate the actions of others. The current study tested the consequences for social cognition of the hypothesized association between alexithymia and impaired interoception by examining the relationship between alexithymia and the ability to inhibit imitation. If alexithymia is best characterized as a general interoceptive impairment, then one would predict that alexithymia would have the same relationship with the ability to control imitation as does interoceptive accuracy. Forty-three healthy adults completed measures of alexithymia, imitation-inhibition, and as a control, inhibition of nonimitative spatial compatibility. Results revealed the predicted relationship, such that increasing alexithymia was associated with an improved ability to inhibit imitation, and that this relationship was specific to imitation-inhibition. These results support the characterization of alexithymia as a general interoceptive impairment and shed light on the social ability of alexithymic individuals—with implications for the multitude of psychiatric, neurological, and neurodevelopmental disorders associated with high rates of alexithymia.

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