Mirror Touch Synesthesia
July 13, 2015 2:09 PM   Subscribe

This Doctor Knows Exactly How You Feel Mirror-touch synesthetes struggle with the constant intrusion of others’ feelings. At a symposium on mirror-touch synesthesia last year in London, a woman named Fiona Torrance of Liverpool described how she had once seen one man punch another. She promptly passed out in a car. Her boyfriend at the time found her unconscious and took her to the hospital. “I felt the punch,” she explained. As a child, she once saw a man kill an otter with a spade on television. She was inconsolable for a month, feeling as if she’d killed the otter herself. To this day, she takes medication to control the sensory onslaught, and she does not own a television. A recent episode of the NPR program Invisibilia profiled another woman with the condition who has essentially become a shut-in.
posted by Michele in California (22 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not sure if it's the same thing but if I see or even think about someone walking painfully barefoot, stubbing a toe or in some way injuring their feet I experience sharp, almost debilitating pains in my own feet and legs. Physical rather than imagined or phantom pain. Especially bad if it is a child. I assumed it was some sort of weird empathetic response...
posted by jim in austin at 2:30 PM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


'Ring of Bright Water', oh man, that movie. All happy-go-lucky cute otter and then right at the end pointless death. It'd be like throwing Gromit into a wood-chipper at the end of an Aardman flick in terms of kids traumatised.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:58 PM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Empathy (as a superpower) has always been the suckiest superpower.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:00 PM on July 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


This is absolutely fascinating and I feel terribly for those who suffer from this. It must be some version of mirror neurons gone wrong, as the article suggests. I find these kinds of disorders particularly interesting, since it's not really something going wrong in the sense of breaking or being corrupted, it's something working way, way too well.

(I may have read a bit of Oliver Sacks' work, why do you ask?)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:01 PM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Parable of the Sower anyone?
posted by SansPoint at 3:04 PM on July 13, 2015 [9 favorites]




Slight aside: I'd be deeply shocked to witness the aggressive killing of an otter as well. *sniff* Just thinking about it makes me feel sick and disoriented and sad sad sad.

A compassionate soul is a burden in this roughshod world. Not just for otters, but especially for otters.
posted by isopraxis at 3:11 PM on July 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


I... I think I'd better stay away from her. She'd collapse to the ground unable to breathe.
posted by Soliloquy at 3:13 PM on July 13, 2015


Empathy (as a superpower) has always been the suckiest superpower.

I don't know, Dr. Salinas certainly seems to be making it work for him. That guy just seems really impressive, and shockingly well-adjusted.

Thanks so much for linking this, it's a really fascinating read.
posted by yasaman at 3:15 PM on July 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is also how porn, fiction, advertising and... well, storytelling in general works. Imagine life at either end of the spectrum - uncontrollable physical empathy or complete lack of identification with others - and, well, the species wouldn't work if either was the way for everyone.

It is possible for people to have temporary bouts of extremely high empathy, including becoming aware of signals that were completely ignored before, certainly through psychedelics and I imagine through training. It is a state of mind that is highly instructive (no, it's not telepathy, but it can certainly feel like it) and I wish there were reliable ways for those who might want to experience this, to work towards it.
posted by Devonian at 3:24 PM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, sure. If these deranged individuals are going to punch otters, then they ought to be put indoors away from others

GOSH.
posted by clvrmnky at 3:38 PM on July 13, 2015


I feel terribly for those who suffer from this.

I see what you did there.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 3:50 PM on July 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


The protagonist of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower had this condition.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:39 PM on July 13, 2015


I hate to be the knee-jerk skeptic but it seems hard to believe that someone with this condition could tolerate being a physician
posted by thelonius at 4:41 PM on July 13, 2015


I hate to be the knee-jerk skeptic but it seems hard to believe that someone with this condition could tolerate being a physician

I'm guessing it's different having an overactive parasympathetic response than it is having an overactive sense of empathy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:48 PM on July 13, 2015


This is also how porn, fiction, advertising and... well, storytelling in general works.

That's probably why I dislike porn - there's nothing inherently wrong with it, I just never want to be naked with any of those people. Fiction usually provides an adequate buffer, but still.
posted by sneebler at 5:40 PM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is pretty awful.

It would've been interesting to see how Star Trek:TNG would've handled Deanna Troi's character, if they had tried to be realistic. There is clearly such a thing as too much empathy.
posted by markkraft at 5:48 PM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


An ancestor of mine who was a doctor in the Civil War was famous for doing facial diagnosis, years later in his private practice. He could look at a patient and anticipate what the ailment was. I wonder if that's a variation of this type of synesthesia.
posted by mmiddle at 5:59 PM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have this. I've always wondered about it, and never knew others did too until this very moment! When I see people fall, I feel intense...not pain, exactly, but like a shock, or a twinge, in my lower abdomen, hips, and pelvis. I've always had it. When I was younger I would have to get up and leave the room when America's Funniest Videos came on because clip after clip would be *twinge* *twinge* *twinge*. I still have it today. I wrote it off as just a weird, maladaptive empathetic response, which it seems it is.

I also have very strong letter/number-color synesthesia. I've known what that was for a long time; that it really was a "thing" and not my imagination. I remember being surprised to learn that other people don't think Qs are purplish-navy blue colored.
posted by staggering termagant at 6:24 PM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well technically, isn't it actually that: Mirror-touch synesthetes struggle with the constant intrusion of THEIR OWN PROJECTIONS OF others’ feelings.
posted by mary8nne at 4:44 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also given that fictional television is capable of producing the responses it is clearly not grounded in the ACTUAL occurrence of any feeling or emotion in the observed but rather the appearance of a feeling or emotion.

So rather than a superpower this seems much more like a disability or inablilty to even distinguish true responses from merely acted ones or faked ones. Are they even more gullible than the usual person as a result? Incapable of suspicion?

Do they experience the pain / feeling even when the doubt the veracity of the observed response?
posted by mary8nne at 4:50 AM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


The credulity with which Invisibilia approached this subject really upset me. The thing is, as others have already noted, the feelings these people sense from others aren't necessarily what those others are actually feeling. I'm sure it helps the doctor to be more aware of possible sources of pain for the patient, but it doesn't provide new information about what the patient is actually experiencing. It's just as likely to be a hinderance to providing good care.
posted by milk white peacock at 6:55 AM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


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