Living with mirror-touch synesthesia

Erika Hayasaki, for Pacific Standard:

Salinas is peculiarly attuned to the sensations of others. If he sees someone slapped across the cheek, Salinas feels a hint of the slap against his own cheek. A pinch on a stranger’s right arm might become a tickle on his own. “If a person is touched, I feel it, and then I recognize that it’s touch,” Salinas says.

The condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it has aroused significant interest among neuroscientists in recent years because it appears to be an extreme form of a basic human trait. In all of us, mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and other areas of the brain activate when we watch someone else’s behaviors and actions. Our brains map the regions of the body where we see someone else caressed, jabbed, or whacked, and they mimic just a shade of that feeling on the same spots on our own bodies. For mirror-touch synesthetes like Salinas, that mental simulacrum is so strong that it crosses a threshold into near-tactile sensation, sometimes indistinguishable from one’s own. Neuroscientists regard the condition as a state of “heightened empathic ability.”

It can’t be easy living with an extra channel of sensory input. On some level, it’s just another sense. But our senses are meant to tell us about the world we’re experiencing, and this condition is more akin to interference from a neighboring radio station. It’s noise, even if noise itself can occasionally be put to use.

I have synesthesia, but the closest it gets to mirror-touch is that it’s nigh impossible for me to watch people dance.