Affective agnosia: Expansion of the alexithymia construct and a new opportunity to integrate and extend Freud's legacy

Richard D Lane, Karen L Weihs, Anne Herring, Alex Hishaw, Ryan Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

76 Scopus citations


We describe a new type of agnosia consisting of an impairment in the ability to mentally represent or know what one is feeling. Freud the neurologist coined the term "agnosia" in 1891 before creating psychoanalysis in 1895 but the term has not been previously applied to the domain of affective processing. We propose that the concept of "affective agnosia" advances the theory, measurement and treatment of what is now called "alexithymia," meaning "lack of words for emotion." We trace the origin of the alexithymia construct and discuss the strengths and limitations of extant research. We review evidence that the ability to represent and put emotions into words is a developmental achievement that strongly influences one's ability to experience, recognize, understand and use one's own emotional responses. We describe the neural substrates of emotional awareness and affective agnosia and compare and contrast these with related conditions. We then describe how this expansion of the conceptualization and measurement of affective processing deficits has important implications for basic emotion research and clinical practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)594-611
Number of pages18
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1 2015



  • Agnosia
  • Alexithymia
  • Anomia
  • Brain
  • Emotional awareness
  • Psychotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology

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