Mirror synesthesia

Verity Crane examines the unusual phenomenon of suffering from too much empathy

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Imagine what it would feel like to watch a film and physically experience the emotions and sensations of each and every character that you saw on screen. This could be the salty taste and crunchy texture of a handful of chips being chewed in your mouth, or the excruciating pain from a gunshot to your leg. Far from offering you the glamorous life of a movie star, this rare neurological condition which causes people to hyper-empathise with the people and animals that they observe is both draining and potentially severely dangerous.
Many of us are already familiar with the concept of synesthesia, which literally means “the mixing of the senses”. It is a term used to describe the condition whereby one feels a sensation in one area of the body produced by stimulation in another, often totally unrelated, part (famous sufferers include Vladimir Nabokov and Wassily Kandinsky).

Common examples of this include seeing emotions as colours and smelling sounds.
However, acutely feeling everything that the people around you feel takes this confusion of the senses to a whole new level, and has been given the name of “mirror-touch synesthesia”. It was not until 2005 that scientists began to research this fascinating condition. The first woman upon whom research was conducted explained how as a child her abnormally strong reactions to other people’s pain were dismissed as a sign of social anxiety, but studies have shown that they in fact have a physiological cause. Have you ever flinched at the sight of someone being hit in the face by a football? This reflexive reaction would have been carried out by what is known as your ‘mirror-touch system’. It is precisely the over activity of this system in certain individuals that explains the symptoms of mirror-touch synesthesia. It goes without saying that suffering from this condition can make being in social situations very difficult; being surrounded by such a plethora of feelings and emotions must lead to confusion over which ones are actually your own.

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Sometimes the brain’s response to what it sees can be so strong that it causes actual physical harm to the body. Indeed, it was only after the boyfriend of the first woman to have been diagnosed with this condition returned to his car one day to find her unconscious following witnessing a brawl that she decided to seek medical help.

This being said, it isn’t all bad. This unusual kind of synesthesia presents those that have it with the possibility of experiencing feelings that many of us will never experience. One woman explained that she enjoys watching birds fly in the sky because in doing so she receives the vivid impression that she is flying. Another seeks comfort and warmth from observing other people hug one another. Finally, although we might not want to suffer from mirror-touch synesthesia ourselves, we would certainly all benefit from a friend who does, because there are undoubtedly few other people who would have a better understanding of our own feelings.