Cultural Alexithymia in an Evolutionary Context

In the 1970’s Clare Graves (a developmental psychologist and researcher) proposed a theory, based on research, that societal values evolve in a fixed sequence over time; stage-to-stage or level-to-level.  His work was subsequently elaborated upon by Chris Cowan and Donald Beck in an more accessible format called “Spiral Dynamics“.  In this system individuals within a culture have the potential to move through each of the developmental levels of their culture, though some may not attain the leading-edge level, depending on their immediate environmental circumstances and responses to life challenges.  The Spiral Dynamic framework provides an informative context for understanding cultural alexithymia.  First a brief summary of a few stages from Spiral Dynamics(which uses colors to denote stages):

  • In Traditional (Blue) societies (e.g., North America prior to the 1960’s) tend to be organized around historical mythologies (E.g., the paternalistic structure of Christianity) with a strong emphasis on roles (I.e., the husband “provides for the family”, the wife is “bare foot, pregnant, and in the kitchen”, while children “should be seen and not heard”), in which individuals submit to local (e.g., priests) and ultimate (God) authority.  It also tends to be ethnocentric – “Us” against “Them”.  While this is a good and necessary stage of development in that it fosters basic communal skills; instilling a sense of right and wrong, a sense of morality (e.g., Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), etc, this level de-emphasizes the experience as well as the expression of the individual.
  • Modernity (Orange), in contrast, broke out of the roles and limitations of the traditional mindset and values individual expression and pursuit of individual interests and attainment above all else.  In Modernity, intellectual observation and rationality supersedes mythological and traditional dogma, and an individual pursues self-actualization (often in their career) and self-happiness as a primary life goal.  There is is less concern with family, tradition, and traditional authority (all of which often limit individual exploration and pursuits).  Modernity gave rise to feminism, equal rights for minority groups, and the influx of women into the workforce.
  • With Post-Modern (Green) values, the absence of “objective truth” about reality is accepted as a given, as is the “relativeness” of different viewpoints, and there is a deep understanding that “all knowledge is contextual”.  Individuals at Post-Modern levels of development no longer wish to impose their values and beliefs on others (in contrast to individuals at Traditional and Modern stages, who generally do), but rather want everyone to honor and accept all individuals for who they are, as they are.  At this level, there is less emphasis on individual attainment (“quantity”) and more on quality of life.  There is a move back toward group connectedness and relationships, though “my group” is now global (as opposed to family/ ethnocentric) and holds environmentally-conscious values.  Unlike the disposition of individuals with Traditional values, children are respected as unique individuals, listened too, and encouraged to express themselves, and parents become “friends” and mentors instead of authority figures.  For the first time in human development, there is the consensual realization that people really are individuals, not roles, and to “know someone” involves a deep level of listening, intimacy, and communication.

It is only in the context of post-modern values that the need for a language of emotions and feelings arises and we find our culture has no such structures or frameworks for this degree of intimate communication.   At earlier levels of cultural evolution, we, as a culture, did not notice there was no framework for deeply understanding and expressing feelings and emotions because we had no need for such a language.  Hence it makes sense that the notion of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995) and emotionally explicit therapies (see Recent Advances in Psychology) emerged in our culture only recently.

With the utmost of respect to Mr. Goleman for his work in championing the importance of emotions to our culture, the term used by the researcher he chose to Champion – emotional “intelligence” – reflects our (Modern) cultural bias towards the intellectual.  The term “intelligence” points more towards conceptual, thinking, rational and logical processes (processes highly valued in our predominantly Modern culture), then how I have come to understand the mature, healthy functioning of the emotional brain.  (Consistent with this concern, but for different reasons, there is controversy surrounding the idea of emotional intelligence.)   As I explain in the DVD series, which looks at emotional functioning in the context of the triune brain theory, the notion of “intelligence” is not necessarily the best way to describe the biologically programmed but environmentally modifiable, largely automated, irrational but still lawful, processing capacities of the emotional brain.

So in summary: Our language and science are at Traditional and Modern levels of development, while many individuals, particularly the young and the progressive, are attempting to live at Post-Modern levels of relationship.  Our school system and our parenting styles are also Post-Modern and allowing and encouraging people to have and express feelings, but there is no training, no language, no methods for adequately expressing them nor resolving them.   In this emerging Post-Modern world, in which we struggle to communicate and know each other more deeply and intimately, we find ourselves unprepared and untrained to do so; we find ourselves alexithymic and in need of a framework such as the Bio-Emotive Framework!