If you’ve ever witnessed someone undergo any sort of physical trauma, chances are you know what it’s like to—in a sense—“feel” what that person is going through. At the very least, imagining someone else’s pain tends to make us uncomfortable. When we try to imagine someone else’s physical pain, our brains essentially attempt to simulate the sensations that go into it; and by doing so, we sometimes “feel” a shadow of what the other person might be feeling. This phenomenon is commonly known as empathy.
I persistently add quotes around the word “feel” for two reasons: the first being that empathizing with someone’s pain isn’t the same as actually experiencing it; and second, our capacity to empathize with others by imagining their pain is constrained by our own experience of pain. If I witness someone break his or her arm, for example, I can imagine what that would feel like, even though I’ve never broken a bone myself. However, this cognitive simulation is at best a mere approximation. Moreover, research suggests that pain is not experienced in the same way by everybody. So, even if I had broken an arm before, my perception of pain could still very well be different.
That being said, what if we could be so attuned to other people’s sensations that we actually experience them? How would that change how we treat other people? One can begin to imagine the possibilities of a world in which for every violent act undertaken, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Interestingly, there are people who suffer from a peculiar brain anomaly that gives rise to a very similar experience: a unique neurological condition called mirror touch synesthesia. Synesthesia, as a general term, describes the condition in which a person experiences “crossed” responses to stimuli. It occurs when stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (hearing, for example) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision). About five percent of the population has synesthesia, and over 60 types have been reported. The most common form of synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, in which people perceive individual letters of the alphabet and numbers to be “shaded” or “tinged” with a color. Other synesthetes commingle sounds with scents, sounds with shapes, or shapes with flavors.
Mirror touch synesthesia is a subtype of this phenomenon, in which, to oversimplify somewhat, the visual and tactile pathways of the brain are “crossed.” If someone with mirror touch synesthesia were to see someone else get slapped across the face, he or she would report feeling it too. In all people, standard empathic ability arises from mirror neurons in the premotor cortex (and other areas of the brain) which activate when we observe someone else’s actions. These neurons help our brain map the regions of the body where we see someone else get hit, poked, or caressed, and then recreate a shadow of those sensations on similar regions of our own body. For mirror touch synesthetes, however, this empathic ability is heightened to such a degree that it can be difficult for them to distinguish between their sensations and the sensations of others.
Since pain is adaptive and emerges from the brain rather than directly from a damaged area of the body, it is conceivable that synesthetes are able to experience vicarious pain so intensely, it can be immobilizing. In an interview conducted by NPR, a synesthetic woman named Amanda recounted one particular day when, during a trip to the grocery store, she witnessed a child standing upright in a grocery cart, playing. The boy reportedly fell backwards and hit his head, and as Amanda saw this, her eyes went blurry and she fell to her knees in pain. Amanda can’t even eat dinner at the table with her family because “It feels like they’re…shoving their forks in my mouth.” In another scenario, a woman from Liverpool named Fiona Torrance witnessed one man punch another. She promptly passed out and had to be driven to the hospital by her boyfriend, who found her slumped over in her car, unconscious. As a child, she was watching television and saw a man kill an otter. She was distraught for a month, feeling as though she had killed the otter herself. To this day, she no longer owns a television.
To be clear, mirror touch is not a superpower. Although it is interesting as a line of inquiry, mirror touch synesthesia can be incredibly debilitating, and those who suffer from it must learn techniques to conjure a mental barrier between themselves and other people, or become fatigued by overstimulation. Additionally, although synesthetes do experience vicarious responses to the sensations of others, mirror touch is not a form of quantum entanglement—though some find it to be a useful analogy. Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in quantum physics that describes two particles that have interacted in such a way that they become “entangled.” Even when separated over long distances, the effects of a force exerted on one particle in an entangled pair are replicated on the other. Although this analogy may be conceptually useful, it implies that there is some sort of interaction between the brains of synesthetes and the brains of others. Synesthetes may feel pain that is similar in intensity to actual sensations, but their brains are not actually interrelating telepathically with the brains of other people. An easy way of demonstrating the falsity of this idea is to tap someone on the shoulder who cannot feel pain; a synesthete observing this interaction would report feeling this sensation, even though the receiver of the stimulus would not. Therefore, the empathic ability of synesthetes is constrained; it is a subjective simulation. Though we might want to romanticize their abilities, even mirror touch synesthetes cannot truly experience what other people are feeling.
Nevertheless, mirror touch synesthesia provides critical insight into the range of human empathy. It is fascinating to consider what the world would look like if everyone had super-empathic abilities. Would we continue to drop bombs if we could feel the pain of a thousand lives course through our veins? Would we continue to find it as easy to ignore the millions that are starving around the world, if their vapid stares and emaciated figures were what we saw reflected in the mirror? The fact that we can pose these questions to ourselves reveals a rather troubling, but obvious, fact about human nature: we tend to find it easier to be selfish, unless someone else’s pain is made salient to us in some way. Paradoxically, mirror touch synesthesia, a rare disorder of the brain, reveals the inner dysfunction in all of us, and leaves us with a final question: Which is worse—feeling too much, or too little?