Alexithymic personality in Philip K. Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Abstract

The official definition for alexithymia dates back to 1973, when Sifneos described its symptoms. Persons affected by this condition are unable to verbally describe their feelings. For many years this condition was relatively little known, but nowadays people are talking about it more and more. In forums in which the patients’ comments are posted, it is often underscored how this particular mental state is similar to that of the androids described in the novel Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The Dickian clinical references were those in use during the 1960s. Therefore, to special characteristics that Philip Dick attributed to his robots (coldness and lack of human empathy, and simultaneous desire for social acceptance), the writer, and then the critics, assigned the label of schizophrenia, the only one that the psychiatric manuals of that time associated to such symptoms. Today, if Dick were alive and were to write about his androids, he most likely would no longer use the term schizophrenics, but instead the term alexithymics, which are more socially adaptive than schizophrenics, just like his androids. Making retrospective diagnoses of literary characters is anachronistic; as it was done for decades by critics to consider the Dickian androids schizophrenics: in the fiction story they are not schizophrenics but robots. However a new psychological trait such as alexithymia can revisit that same story by giving it a new symbolic meaning. The aims of this article are: to highlight how the old nosological categories of schizophrenia, generally referred to when commenting Do androids dream of electric sheep?, should be supplemented by the category of alexithymia; to analyze the scenes in which the characters have typical alexithymic behaviors, trying to prove that alexithymia is actually best suited for describing the androids invented by Dick.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Dick writes about the Benjamin Proverd Test in We can build you (1972) and in The transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) too. The fictitious Voigt-Kampff test is very similar to the Awkward Moments Test (Heavey et al. 2000) to measure the social understanding in autistic people.

  2. 2.

    The reference to Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), an American neurologist, appears correctly in We can build you (1972), when brain mapping is mentioned.

  3. 3.

    Empathy for animal life that distinguishes humanity from the androids has been described in Toth (2013). With regard to other characteristics of Dick’s androids (individualism, lack of affections, relationship with artificial things) see Berman (2006), Sims (2009), Zimmerman (2015).

  4. 4.

    http://www.flavinscorner.com/9-17-99.htm. Other references can be found in https://francescacaon.com/2015/08/25/lalexitimia-lemozione-non-ha-voce, and in http://brontisorengo.blogspot.com/2011/04/.

  5. 5.

    http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&p=7203914.

  6. 6.

    http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=250994&p=5886905.

  7. 7.

    https://speakertoanimals.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/do-aspies-dream-of-electric-sheep/.

  8. 8.

    https://speakertoanimals.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/do-aspies-dream-of-electric-sheep/.

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Correspondence to Riccardo Gramantieri.

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Gramantieri, R. Alexithymic personality in Philip K. Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep?. Neohelicon (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-020-00544-z

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Keywords

  • Affective disorders
  • Alexithymia
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Do androids dream of electric sheep?
  • Schizophrenia