Mirror Touch Synesthesia, The Condition That (Literally) Makes You Feel Other People’s Pain

We’re about to tell you something that will blow your mind: when a movie character is hurt, most people don’t feel the pain themselves.

Oh, did you already know that? You must be one of the 98% of people who do not experience mirror touch synesthesia. But for the other 2% who just learned they’re unusual, read on.

If you’ve ever heard of synesthesia, you may associate it with the ability to see sounds or taste words. In fact, there are at least 80 different types of synesthesia, most with similar paradoxical descriptions: there’s a type that causes people to see dates and times in the physical space around them, for example, or another that gives numbers personalities and gender.

Mirror touch synesthesia, at first glance, seems relatively normal: it is the experience of feeling what other people are feeling. But it goes far beyond normal empathy – it’s an actual physical sensation, and for some people it can be completely overwhelming.

“If I see someone with a pair of glasses, I’ll feel the glasses feel on my nose like they’re on my face,” said Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a mirror-touch synesthete. BBC.

But the experience “can be a little distressing”, he added, noting that a former patient who had self-harming tics – he would “chew the inside of his lips” and “grind his teeth” – would unintentionally cause “this painful buzz shooting through my own cheek.

It’s delicate. See, in a way, almost everyone has a bit of mirror touch synesthesia – it’s part of what makes us human.

“We automatically slip into other people’s shoes, even if we’re not consciously aware of it,” neuroscientist and synesthesia expert Michael Banissy told NPR.

For most people, that feeling is limited to things like crying over a whiny movie or crossing your legs when you read why the chainsaw was invented. But for the one in 50 of us with mirror touch synesthesia, Banissy explained, that normal empathic response goes up to 11.

“They over-activate their system. It’s exciting. It’s much more exciting than when you or I activate the system,” he explained.

“So what they’re doing is potentially activating the system beyond the threshold to the extent that they can actually reach the level of conscious experience… [they’re] literally having a physical sensation or a tactile response by observing these experiences in other people.

At least it’s a theory. Another suggests that mirror-touch synesthetes have a problem with their “self/other representation,” that is, the way your brain distinguishes between you and others. If so, then people with mirror touch synesthesia are literally “treated[ing] others as if they were themselves,” Banissy explained.

“Synesthetes with mirror touch seem to have less gray matter… [in the] temporoparietal junction,” he told NPR.

“[It suggests] that there could be a breakdown in the way the brain activates when it tries to distinguish between oneself and someone else,” he explained. “And it’s actually this blurring between self and other that could lead them to treat other people’s bodies as if it were their own.”

It is not dangerous in itself, but for those who experience it very strongly, it can be totally debilitating.

“[A kid was] standing in the cart, I think,” synesthete Amanda recalled on NPR. “And he fell back and hit his head – just a snap. And I went for a run. And all of a sudden my eyes got blurry, and I was on my knees on the thing before I could reach this kid. And I’m just like, this kid, he needs help. And I had such a headache that I wanted to crawl to try to reach the kid. Like, that was bad.

For Amanda, her synesthesia is so bad that she became a recluse – going out and seeing other people was just too much for her. She couldn’t even eat with her family: I “feel like they’re stuffing food into my mouth,” she says. “It’s awful.”

And mirror touch synesthesia can also have more existential impacts. We all probably know someone who has changed a bit after meeting a new partner, but for people with mirror touch synesthesia, this inability to distinguish themselves from others can mean that a new relationship, a friend or even just a Random acquaintance on the street can lead to a real identity crisis.

“I remember looking in the mirror, and I – I was just looking at myself in the mirror, like, what am I doing here?” said Amanda.

” Am I ? Or am I because of the people around me? Do I take them, you know? Do they affect me so badly – ​​overwhelm me so much – their personalities, their movements, their this and that? Am I myself?

If you think you have mirror tactile synesthesia, the first thing to do is ask yourself a question: is it a problem for me?

“If you have mirror touch synesthesia, there’s nothing wrong with you,” said Jared Medina, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware. “It’s just an interesting difference, like being double-jointed.”

Two percent of the population might not sound like a lot, but it translates to hundreds of millions of mirror-touch synesthetes across the world – and for most of them, the condition isn’t as extreme as that from Amanda. Some feel the sensations and emotions of others only slightly – a tickle instead of a slap, for example. Or, as Salinas put it in a profile for Pacific Standard: “an echo of pain.”

For others, experience only occurs under specific circumstances. In a 2017 study, for example, some people with mirror touch synesthesia found that the experience would diminish or even disappear if they simply changed their position.

“[The] phantom sensations were more common when the participants’ hand position matched that of the video hand,” explained Medina, who was the study’s lead researcher. “Our findings suggest that the brain matches the video hand to its own hand, as if asking ‘could this be my hand?'”

For Salinas, the key was learning to divert his attention from the emotions of those around him – focusing instead on the task at hand, or on a physical object, or perhaps on the calmest person in the room. room.

“Once I was able to harness the trait, I felt like it helped me become a better doctor,” he told the BBC.

And of course, there’s always the possibility that you might actually As to be a synesthete.

“When I see people kissing, it feels like my body is being hugged,” CC Hart, a mirror-touch synesthete, told the BBC.

“It feels good for them, but it does me good too.”