Learn about the symptoms, causes, and experience of blunted affect.
When somebody isn’t expressing themselves and their emotions in the ways we typically expect, we usually take notice. Although everybody has days when their emotions are higher or lower, people who are experiencing blunted affect stand out because they rarely or never express emotion.
Affect is a word psychologists use for the expression of emotions, and blunted, in this case, means dulled, weakened, or slowed down. Typically, this means minimal demonstration of emotion through facial expressions, making less eye contact in conversation, using fewer gestures and other forms of body language to express emotion, and having a flat tone of voice (Padmanabhan & Keshavan, 2016).
Psychologists and psychiatrists came up with the definition of blunted affect through careful observation of people experiencing mental health challenges. Specifically, we know from research that blunted affect is common in several groups of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and its related disorders, bipolar disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autism spectrum disorder (Strauss & Cohen, 2017).
Although blunted affect may look much the same on the outside, the experience of blunted affect on the inside looks different across these disorders. For some people, blunted affect reflects the fact that they are not experiencing much emotion—they feel numb or empty inside. Other people with blunted affect are experiencing a typical range of emotions, but they are unable to physically demonstrate those emotions in the ways we usually expect.
On the outside, blunted affect may involve speech that is monotone or robotic, where the words you would expect to hear emphasized are not. A person with blunted affect will also respond without emotion to events that would evoke emotions in most people, such as learning that one received a promotion or that a loved one was in a car accident. People experiencing blunted affect say that it is even hard for them to force their faces into emotional expressions (Ekman, 2003; Gabay et al., 2015).
As you might imagine, being on either side of the equation in a conversation where somebody has blunted affect can be difficult. Human connection relies on the ability to empathize, to feel not only our own emotions but also intuit and feel what others are feeling (Fredrickson, 2013). People with blunted affect have more difficulty doing this (Lee et al., 2014), making it harder for them to build and maintain relationships.
What Causes Blunted Affect?
Brain imaging studies have shown that the parts of the brain responsible for paying attention to emotions, recognizing facial expressions, and helping us empathize and imagine what other people are thinking, are functioning worse in people with blunted affect (Chuang et al., 2014; Stoodley & Schmahmann, 2010). These findings have led some scientists to believe that impairments in thinking (for example, not recognizing one’s own emotions) are one of the causes of blunted affect (Boden et al., 2021; Strauss & Cohen, 2017).
Similarly, other research suggests that blunted affect may also be caused by people’s brains not recognizing cues of emotions, perhaps because their mirror neurons—the parts of our brain that make us feel what another person is feeling—are less active when they are interacting with other people (Lee et al., 2014). However, some research suggests that people with blunted affect only have trouble expressing emotion, not feeling it, which means they may recognize other people’s feelings but not be able to respond to them effectively (Aghevli et al., 2003).
In summary, blunted affect is probably caused by a breakdown in the links between the parts of the brain involved in emotions and other parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (where thinking and decision-making primarily happen) and the motor cortex (which controls physical action).
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Boden, R., Bengtsson, J., Thornblom, E., Struckmann, W., & Persson, J. (2021). Dorsomedial prefrontal theta burst stimulation to treat anhedonia, avolition, and blunted affect in schizophrenia or depression – a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 290, 308-315.
Chuang, J. Y., Murray, G. K., Metastasio, A., Segarra, N., Tait, R., …, & Suckling, J. (2014). Brain structural signatures of negative symptoms in depression and schizophrenia. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5, 116.
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Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we think, do, feel, and become. Random House.
Gabay, A. S., Kempton, M. J., & Mehta, M. A. (2015). Facial affect processing deficits in schizophrenia: a meta-analysis of antipsychotic treatment effects. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(2), 224-229.
Lee, J. S., Chun, J. W., Yoon, S. Y., Park, H., & Kim, J. (2014). Involvement of the mirror neuron system in blunted affect in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research, 152(1), 268-274.
Padmanabhan, J. L., & Keshavan, M. S. (2016). Schizophrenia. In Howard S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health (pp. 55-65). Academic Press.
Stoodley, C. J., & Schmahmann, J. D. (2010). Evidence for topographic organization in the cerebellum of motor control versus cognitive and affective processing. Cortex, 46, 831-844.
Strauss, G. P., & Cohen, A. S. (2017). A transdiagnostic review of negative symptom phenomenology and etiology. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 43(4), 712-719.