'Numbness' in the face of a threat: depersonalisation experiences

Hayley Dewe, a PhD student in the School of Psychology, has published a new paper which investigates emotional arousal in those predisposed to depersonalisation type experiences.

Depersonalisation and derealisation relate to unusual sensations of the ‘self’ or body – where the individual (or ‘self’) feels emotionally numb, unreal, and dissociated from the body or world. Hayley's paper investigates individual predisposition to these dissociative experiences with autonomic fear and emotional responses to a realistic ‘body-threat’.

The study recorded autonomic emotional arousal in participants via standardised skin conductance responses and body temperature during a fake blood-withdrawal procedure; called the ‘Implied Body-Threat Illusion’ (IBT). Findings revealed that the greater the experience of dissociation and emotional numbness of the self or body, the lower the emotional arousal (skin conductance response) to the body-threat (IBT). Importantly, findings revealed an emotional suppression during the IBT via standardised, autonomic measures for those displaying traits of depersonalisation and derealisation experiences. Findings are discussed within frameworks of sensory integration defining how an individual maintains a coherent and stable sense of self.

The study significantly extends previous research by revealing suppressed autonomic arousal for a body-threat task that was conducted directly onto the real body (hand) of the participant, and this was demonstrated even in sub-clinical groups.

Hayley is currently researching the neurocognition of anomalous experience from the Selective Attention and Awareness Laboratory in the School of Psychology. She is first author on this paper which will be published in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, and form part of a special issue on Dissociation and the Out-of-Body experience, available at the end of the year.

Reference:
Hayley Dewe, Derrick G. Watson & Jason J. Braithwaite (2016): Uncomfortably numb: new evidence for suppressed emotional reactivity in response to body-threats in those predisposed to sub-clinical dissociative experiences, Cognitive Neuropsychiatry.