Background: Alexithymia, a condition characterized by deficits in interpreting and regulating feelings, is a risk factor for a variety of psychiatric conditions. Little is known about how alexithymia influences the processing of emotions in music and speech. Appreciation of such emotional qualities in auditory material is fundamental to human experience and has profound consequences for functioning in daily life. We investigated the neural signature of such emotional processing in alexithymia by means of event-related potentials.
Methodology: Affective music and speech prosody were presented as targets following affectively congruent or incongruent visual word primes in two conditions. In two further conditions, affective music and speech prosody served as primes and visually presented words with affective connotations were presented as targets. Thirty-two participants (16 male) judged the affective valence of the targets. We tested the influence of alexithymia on cross-modal affective priming and on N400 amplitudes, indicative of individual sensitivity to an affective mismatch between words, prosody, and music. Our results indicate that the affective priming effect for prosody targets tended to be reduced with increasing scores on alexithymia, while no behavioral differences were observed for music and word targets. At the electrophysiological level, alexithymia was associated with significantly smaller N400 amplitudes in response to affectively incongruent music and speech targets, but not to incongruent word targets.
Conclusions: Our results suggest a reduced sensitivity for the emotional qualities of speech and music in alexithymia during affective categorization. This deficit becomes evident primarily in situations in which a verbalization of emotional information is required.