Fall 2004 Table of Contents.
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 New & Now.


Emotional Clarity

Super Sorghum

Fractured Fluency

Fuel (and Pet) Friendly

Confused Causes

Organ Assembly

"Miner's House"


Emotional Clarity

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a person who routinely experiences delusions or hallucinations does not have sound reason. Not true, says an MU psychologist.

"People with delusions are in many ways as logical (or illogical) as other people," says John Kerns, assistant professor of psychological sciences. "For example, one man had a delusion that another man named Pierre lived inside him. He wanted an operation to get Pierre out. Other than his talk about Pierre, this guy made perfect sense. He was very lucid, and yet he had this very strange belief."

Kerns argues this man's problem likely resulted from emotional difficulties, not cognitive defects. His study, published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, backs up the assertion.

In the study, Kerns asked 34 people who were classified as "at-risk for psychosis" and 56 control participants to fill out questionnaires. The questions were meant to elicit information about three traits related to processing and using emotional information. The first of these, "affect intensity," measured the intensity of people's emotions. The second, "attention to emotions," was a gauge of how much study participants thought about their feelings. "Clarity of emotions," the final trait, measured their ability to identify their feelings. Kerns followed up the questionnaires with a battery of additional tests designed to record participants' emotions, personalities and moods.

Kerns' data indicated the at-risk group reported higher emotional intensity and attention than the control group but significantly less emotional clarity. This latter finding is key, Kerns says: "They have intense emotions, and they spend a lot of time thinking about how they feel, but they have a problem figuring out what they're feeling. They say they're confused about how they feel, or they report ambivalence, or mixed emotions. For example, they might say they love someone and hate someone at the same time."

Kerns says people with psychotic symptoms probably have poor mood regulation and poor stress-coping strategies. The cause might be physical (perhaps an impaired amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of basic emotional processes) or environmental (such as physical or mental abuse) or a combination of both. In any case, recognizing the problem as emotional rather than cognitive could lead to new, breakthrough treatments.

"With schizophrenia, people often do well in childhood and then hit a wall in late adolescence to early adulthood," Kerns said. "If we could identify at-risk people early on and provide treatment, we might prevent the deterioration from ever taking place."

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