Mirror-Touch Synesthesia: the Extreme Version of Empathy
When a person says ‘I feel your pain,’ you take it to mean emotionally, not physically.But people that suffer from mirror-touch synesthesia feel exactly that; other people’s physical pain.
. Before we discuss this strange condition, let’s get some background on the basics of synesthesia.
The word ‘synesthesia’ comes from Greek and means ‘joined perception’. It’s a condition whereby one sense, such as seeing or hearing, triggers another overlapping sense. People with synesthesia are able to perceive the world through multiple senses. For instance, those with synesthesia experience seeing music as colourful swirls. Or they might associate letters or numbers with different colours. Smells are linked to colours or sounds. It is a condition whereby the sufferer feels the sensations another person is experiencing. It’s called mirror-touch because the feelings occur on the opposite side of the body; as if you’re looking in a mirror. For example, if I were to stroke the palm of my left hand, a sensation would occur on the sufferer’s right palm. Sights and sounds trigger feelings that can be painful or pleasurable. Mirror-touch synesthesia is incredibly rare. It occurs in just 2% of the world’s population. Experts have described it as ‘an extreme form of empathy’. This is because the sufferer feels exactly what the other person is experiencing on and in their own body. One person that knows all about mirror-touch synesthesia is Dr. Joel Salinas. This doctor is a Harvard neurologist and a clinical researcher at Massachusetts University. He comes into contact with sick and ailing patients on a daily basis. But it’s not just their pain and discomfort he feels. Dr. Salinas describes the pressure on the bridge of his nose as he watches someone walk past wearing glasses.
The sensation of vinyl against the backs of his legs as he glances at a woman seated on a plastic chair in the waiting room. How her hat fits snugly around his head.
The way his hip automatically contracts to mimic a volunteer shifting from one leg to another while taking a break from pushing a wheelchair. “Through mirror-touch synesthesia, my body physically feels the experiences I see others have.” Dr. Joel Salinas Experts believe it’s all to do with neurons and the part of our brain which is responsible for forward-thinking and planning. For instance, I look at my coffee and want to drink some of it.
The neurons in my premotor cortex spring into action. This prompts me to reach out and take the cup. Scientists in Italy discovered something interesting whilst researching macaque monkeys and neurons in the premotor cortex.
They noticed high activity in this part of the brain when the monkeys reached to take an object, but also when they observed another monkey reaching out for an object.
They called these particular neurons ‘mirror-touch’ neurons. I find this all pretty incredible; it’s almost like a superpower built into our brains. But more importantly, it suggests a deeper connection between us. People with mirror-touch synesthesia can have very different experiences. For some, it can be incredibly intense and disturbing. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear this condition described as: “shocking electricity – like bolts of fire.” One woman referred to a particularly distressing incident as: “It was a moment of trauma for me.” Another talks about his partner and how exhausted she felt on a daily basis: “Sometimes after being out in the world with everyone else’s feelings pulsing through her body, she’d come home and just pass out.” Of course, we cannot forget there are also good feelings as well as bad. Moreover, some people with this condition seem able to focus on positive experiences. One woman talks about the sense of freedom she goes through: “When I watch a bird in the sky, I feel like I’m flying. That’s a joy.” Another recalls the pleasure he senses: “When I see people hug, I feel like my body is getting hugged.” For some people, having this condition could be seen as a benefit. Certainly in Dr. Salinas’ view, it is. “It is up to me to reason through that experience so that I can then respond to my patients from a truer, more enduring place of compassion and kindness. Or, I can respond with whatever else is needed: Sometimes that means prescribing a medication.” Dr. Salinas However, anyone with empathic traits will know just how exhausting it can be. Putting yourself in another’s person’s situation and feeling their emotions is physically draining in its self. Regardless of actually physically experiencing pain or discomfort, empaths have a hard enough time as it is. Dr. Salinas believes there are good reasons for some of us to be able to feel what others feel. And it’s all about curiosity and understanding another person. “Being curious about where another human being is coming from, and wondering why they might think, feel, or do what they do.” Because it’s the fear of the unknown that can lead to prejudice, radicalisation, stereotyping minority groups and hate crimes. Surely, the more we know about a person, the better for all of society. R.
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