'I literally feel your pain': what life's like with mirror-touch synesthesia
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells his daughter, Scout, in Harper Lee’s iconic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
But people with mirror-touch synesthesia don’t have to climb into someone’s skin to understand how they feel - all they have to do is look at them.
“He ran his right finger down the right side of his face,” Joel Salinas tells me, speaking over the phone from Massachusetts. “I felt the finger down the left side of my face. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s absolutely not normal’."
Joel, 34, is referring to the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who he visited after suspecting he might have synesthesia.
When he was growing up, Joel assumed that everyone felt other people’s emotional or physical sensations just by looking at them, like he did.
“If I see somebody with a pair of glasses, I’ll feel a sensation of the glasses on my nose as if they were on my face,” Joel explains.
But in 2005, during a trip to India as part of his medical training (Joel is a neurologist at Massachusetts’ General Hospital), a fellow student started talking about a group of people who “see colours in sounds and have tastes for textures”.
These people have a perceptual condition known as synesthesia. Over 60 different types of synesthesia have been reported, from grapheme-colour, where numbers and letters have colours, to auditory-tactile, where sounds can lead to sensations in the body.
Pharrell’s protégée singer-songwriter, Maggie Rogers, is amongst a number of celebrities, including Lady Gaga and Pharrell himself, to report having at least one form of synesthesia.
“That kind of blew my mind,” Joel says. He started to wonder if perhaps he, too, had a type of synesthesia.
Fifty-two-year-old massage therapist, CC Hart, who lives in San Francisco, also has mirror-touch. She tells me she feels “shocking electricity - like bolts of fire” down the back of her legs any time she sees a scrape on the knee or a burn on the hand of another person.
Dr Michael Banissy of Goldsmiths University has studied people with mirror-touch, including Joel. “These people are reporting that they’re experiencing the sensations of other people,” Banissy says. “It just happens without any choice about it.”
He tells me that roughly 1.5% of the population are believed to experience it, but mirror-touch isn’t a clinical condition and there's no medical diagnosis for it. Joel describes it in his book, Mirror Touch, as a “variant” or a “trait”.
Learning about mirror-touch awakens a part of me that grew up collecting X-Men comics and dreaming of the power to move things with my mind.
At first, it seems like the closest things I’ve discovered to a real-life super power.
Joel’s family would liken his intuition to having “borderline psychic” abilities, and he often found himself the person that people would come to when they needed some compassion.
“I became kind of like a magnet for that,” he tells me. “I was listening to people and giving advice from a very young age.”
But as Clarke Kent, Jean Grey, and Bruce Wayne all knew, great power can come at a great cost.
Amanda is a synesthete who appeared in an episode of the Invisibilia podcast. She feels such intense emotional empathy towards others that she has become almost completely housebound.
"Sometimes after being out in the world with everyone else's feelings pulsing through her body, she'd come home and just pass out,” Invisibilia says of Amanda’s mirror-touch.
Joel can relate to this. He tells me mirror-touch “can be a little distressing". He mentions a former patient of his who had self-mutilating tics. The man would “chew on the inside of his lips” and “grind his teeth” to the point where he would have almost shredded his entire mouth.
“As I watched him do this, I felt this painful buzzing shooting through my own cheek,” Joel says.
On the other hand, CC says: “When I see people hug, I feel like my body is getting hugged.”
CC tells me she feels pleasure as she massages a client. “It feels good for them, but it feels good for me as well,” she says.
Obviously, I have to ask her about sex. What happens to CC when she’s watching a sex scene?
She says (a little coyly) that seeing the combination of “people touching” and the “movements of sex” can be intense for her - “in kind of a nice way”.
However wacky it may sound, Dr Banissy believes there are logical explanations for mirror-touch synesthesia.
One theory is that sufferers essentially have a hyperactive empathy mechanism.
Another, which Dr Banissy increasingly subscribes to, is that people with mirror-touch “treat others as if they are themselves".
Banissy talks about “self/other representation” in our brains, which is how we distinguish between ourselves and other people. He thinks mirror-touch synesthetes find it difficult to separate the experiences of other people from their own.
“Everybody goes through identity issues, but I’m this Frankenstein of all these other identities I’ve acquired without even trying.”Joel Salinas
“I knew in my gut that my perception of myself was almost non-existent,” Joel says. “Everybody goes through identity issues, but I’m this Frankenstein of all these other identities I’ve acquired without even trying.”
For example, if Joel is feeling “particularly irritable or down”, he has to check whether that experience is actually derived from his own circumstances, as opposed to those of another person.
When I hear this, I’m not surprised that Amanda became a social recluse. It must be frightening to question how authentic your own feelings are.
But, Joel says, “Once I was able to harness the trait, I felt like it helped me become a better doctor”. Joel believes that his ability to “share the pain and suffering” of other people can help those people to feel less alone.
While very few of us will ever have the level of understanding and empathy that Joel and CC have (and possibly wouldn’t want to), perhaps we can learn something from their experiences.
“Imagine how different the world would be if we didn’t just think about what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes,” Joel says, “but actually felt what it’s like - and then responded to that from a place of true compassion?”
When I imagine this world, I kind of like what I see.