Apr 6, 2012
“Alexithymia” pronounced (Alex-ee-time-eeya): from the Greek lexis (word) and thymos (feelings); lit. “a lack of words for feelings.” People who experience Alexithymia are unable to recognize or describe their own emotions, or the emotional experience of others.
But…why is it that we feel we must be able to describe our emotions in words? And that the lack of the ability to do so is some kind of disorder, worthy of Greek naming? Surely, in our evolutionary development, the experience of having emotions long preceded the ability to speak. And, as social creatures, we must have had the ability to perceive and act upon others’ emotions even before that time. Facial expressions and body language are, of course, methods we still use to discern each other’s feelings. However, in this tent, we can explore whether there might not be another method, one which has long been lost to consciousness for the “civilized” person: via the sense of smell.
We were all told as children that “dogs can smell fear.” This is actually true. Smell is the sense that enables animal life-forms to distinguish the chemical signature of molecules in their environment, with varying degrees of sensitivity by species. And since “fear” means, physiologically speaking, “releasing a lot of the molecule called ‘adrenaline’”—a dog is able to perceive that event in another’s body via its sharp sense of smell.
Humans are renowned for being comparative numb-noses in the animal kingdom. Some studies, however, indicate that we get a lot more information through our sense of smell than we are conscious of. One experiment conducted by Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern, Switzerland revealed that women are more attracted to the scent of men whose genes for immune system function are most different from the woman’s own. This is because the genes in the major histocompatibility complex (the key component of the immune system) also affect the proteins that make up body odor.
Since our emotions, and particularly, our moods, are associated with the level of various neurotransmitters in our brains—what if we too are constantly identifying the emotional states of others by smelling the molecular signatures of these neurotransmitters, below the level of consciousness, before the formation of words?
Which brings us to the name of this tent. “La pensée opératoire” or “operational thinking” is a term for a cognitive style often associated with alexithymia, and with autism as well. It means that the affected person is not “mentalizing” abstract thought, but rather going straight to producing behavior without verbalizing to themselves what is going on in their mind. Again—is this necessarily pathological? Or could it be a way of being that predates speech, and that we can all still access, and might want to feel free to experience at times if we choose?
Finally…kissing. A human behavior which is no more “natural” than wearing clothes. In fact, many cultures historically did not kiss; the behavior seems to have originated in India, and was picked up and popularized by the Greeks and Romans. Some theorize that kissing originally came from mothers chewing up and regurgitating food to infants during weaning. However, there are many examples of cultures that wean in this manner, and yet do not kiss. So, another possible explanation, derived from observing customs such as the Inuit “Eskimo kiss,” which (rather than the popular depiction of rubbing noses) is actually performed by inhaling the odor of the other’s cheek—is that kissing came from smelling others in greeting. Something that, we see, can potentially give you a lot of information, from the person’s health, to their suitability as a mate, to their mood.
So, in this tent, an exercise in non-verbal communication, to see if we can access that info, and enter into the world of the pensée opératoire:
1. Sit comfortably facing your partner.
2. Lean towards them as if for an “air kiss,” close your eyes, and breathe deeply the smell of their cheek.
3. While smelling, relax, and let your mind go blank.
4. Rather than searching for words, allow an image, feeling, or behavioral urge to come into your mind.
5. Within the bounds of polite appropriateness, and the laws of the state of California, act out the wordless cognition you have had in some way.
6. If you are the “smell-ee”, let the other person know if their action felt good to you (felt right for your mood), or felt like it clashed with what you were feeling. At this point, both partners can articulate what they experienced if desired.
7. Yo holmes, smell ya later.