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J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 2013 Feb;61(1):99-133. doi: 10.1177/0003065112474066. Epub 2013 Jan 23.

Psychoanalysis and empirical research: the example of alexithymia.

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  • 1University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto.


An extensive body of research on the alexithymia construct is reviewed to show how various empirical methodologies can be used to evaluate the validity and increase our understanding of theoretical and clinically derived psychoanalytic concepts. The historical background of alexithymia and the theoretical framework in which the construct was formulated are presented, after which measurement- and experiment-based approaches to construct validation are described. This is followed by a review of empirical investigations that have yielded evidence that alexithymia is a dimensional personality trait associated with several illnesses of interest to psychoanalysts. Empirical research also supports clinical observations and impressions that individuals with high degrees of alexithymia principally employ primitive defenses, have a limited capacity for empathy, exhibit deficits in mentalization, and do not respond well to traditional interpretive psychotherapies. Also reviewed is empirical research that implicates genetic and environmental/developmental factors in the etiology of alexithymia, in particular childhood trauma and insecure attachments, factors generally associated with deficits in affect development and affect regulation. The clinical relevance of the empirical research findings is discussed in the final section.

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