Mirror-Touch Synesthesia: Pain & Empathy

A doctor places a stethoscope on a patient's back. Used to illustrate sense of touch.If you’ve ever accompanied a friend or family member on a doctor’s visit and sat in the very room the checkup ritual took place, you’ve likely had the fortune of empathizing with that friend or family member, watching as the stethoscope was pressed to the bare back, the reflex hammer hit the knee, or the vaccination needle penetrated flesh. Now, for a second (and no longer), imagine that, in watching these actions take place, you also felt them. A tingle on your back. A knock to your knee. A pinch on your skin. That is mirror-touch synesthesia.

Synesthesia and Empathy

Think about the last time you watched someone take a bad fall or listened to a friend grind his or her teeth. For a split second, you cringe at the thought of physically feeling what they must feel. In a sense, we all empathize to some degree with the physical feelings of others. For an individual with mirror-touch synesthesia, however, the area of the brain that creates this empathy is hyperactive. These individuals don’t just cringe at the thought of comparable pain, but they might actually feel it themselves.

It’s an extraordinary thought, isn’t it? – your own sense of touch being activated by watching what’s happening to someone else. In this article from LiveScience, two mirror-touch synesthetes talk about their experiences and how this accentuated empathy has shaped their lives. I found Jane’s quote to be particularly interesting:

Another, Jane, said she felt her synesthesia is “a positive thing because I believe it makes me more considerate about the feelings of others.”

For non-synesthetes, like me, the best way to relate to this sentiment might be to think about pains or ailments we’ve suffered and how those experiences have shaped the way we empathize when others have similar misfortune. For instance: I’ve never broken a bone, so I’m not sure that I can truly empathize with someone who does. I just can’t be certain of what it feels like. On the other hand, I have had a pretty deep flesh cut – so when I observe someone accidentally cut themselves when chopping up lettuce, I can certainly empathize with the sting.

Are You a Mirror-Touch Synesthete?

While the answer to this question might be painfully obvious (pun fully intended), there are actually tests for this type of synesthesia. One of them, wherein a sensory interference task is used to verify the presence of mirror-touch, is described here (complete with a nice diagram). Another, which involves the user of fMRI, is discussed at length here.

Piggybacking off of the first test I linked, we might design a simple synesthesia test ourselves. You’ll need two friends to help you – one standing behind you and the other in front of you. On the count of three, have the friend that you can see place a finger on one cheek, both cheeks, or neither cheek. At the same time, have the friend behind you place a finger on one of your cheeks, both of your cheeks, or neither cheek. At the end of each trial, have the friend behind you record what you felt (left cheek, right cheek, both, or neither), along with what each of the two friends physically did. You can label them “visible friend” and “non-visible friend,” or something like that.

Repeat this process as many times as you’d like (try 50 or so to start), having your friends switch up their finger placements throughout the process. Once you have a nice collection of data, sit down and do some analysis. How many times did you feel that both cheeks were being touched when the visible friend was touching his or her right cheek and the non-visible friend was touching your left? Were there times when you felt that both cheeks were being touched, when in reality neither was? There are a range of possible combinations here, so it could get messy. Just something interesting to try on a rainy day!

That’s all for now, though. As always, we encourage you to share your mirror-touch experiences in the comments below! Catch ya later! :)

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*Image from Time.com

Emotion-Color Synesthesia Examples in Song

Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ brings to light the power of the color metaphor in music. Whether Ms. Swift has synesthesia or not, we can appreciate the metaphor (or reality). Nothing says burning love quite like the color red; let’s be honest. You might as well have a listen:

Not bad, is it? To each his or her own, I guess. Anyways, it turns out that Taylor isn’t the only popular artist who’s tangled color and emotion in song. While some of you may actually experience emotion-color synesthesia, artists find the metaphor to be an incredible lyrical device. Whole songs (and in this case, albums) can hinge on the relationship between color and emotion. Let’s look at three examples, starting with ‘Red’.

1. ‘Red‘ from Taylor Swift’s Album Red (2012)

Grapheme-color synesthetes may relate the color red with the letter ‘A’, the number ’1′, or other objects/words in the graphemic spectrum. (This young synesthete spells out her red perceptions in a YouTube video.) Emotion-color synesthetes, on the other hand, might involuntarily perceive emotions – perhaps anger, aggression, jealousy, love – as having the color red. This is subjective, of course. Love isn’t red for everyone!

In ‘Red’, Taylor Swift’s use of this emotion-color metaphor comes through clearly in the first two lines of the chorus:

Losing him was blue like I’d never known
Missing him was dark grey all alone

Pretty powerful stuff, isn’t it? The metaphor appears again in the hook’s emphatic finish.

Loving him was red

Whether Taylor Swift is synesthetic or not, she does a good job of bringing the real experiences of some alive for her many listeners. Bravo!

2. ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’ from Eiffel 65′s Album Europop (1999)

Perhaps one of the more polarizing dance songs of our time, Eiffel 65′s ‘Blue’ took the use of color in song to an entirely new place. To this day, the color blue must invoke some sort of subconscious singsong in my mind’s periphery. It’s catchy; there’s no denying it. Have a listen. I’ll apologize ahead of time if you find yourself trying to make sense of the nonsensical chorus.

Too many things are blue in this song, so I won’t list them all. However, as blue is the color perhaps most frequently associated with emotion (typically sadness, loneliness, etc.), we come to associate these emotions with the song’s subject. These lyrics help to fortify the assumption:

Blue are the words I say and what I think
Blue are the feelings that live inside me

Nothing like dancing to the sad (albeit uppity) song of another person, eh? Well – I’m not sure about that. What I do know is that – should there come a day when (for whatever reason) I need to scrawl ‘Eiffel 65′ on a piece of paper – I’ll be inclined to do so with a blue ink pen. In my mind, they’ve forever aligned themselves with this color.

3. ‘Yellow‘ from Coldplay’s Album Parachutes (2000)

Now on the last example, I realize that, at one point or another, I’ve listened to each of these songs in rather irresponsible repetition – to the point of temporary ruination, even. Still, I have a certain appreciation for each of them – Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ included. Smooth vocals. Catchy riff. I’ll catch you on the other side of the song.

Pretty great, isn’t it? While Wikipedia indicates that the use of the color yellow may be completely arbitrary, I can’t help but think that it fits the mood of the song perfectly. Ostensibly, the song’s lyrics qualify the unrequited love of the band’s lead vocalist. Unrequited love seems yellow to me (a non-synesthete); how ’bout you?

Here’s a selection from the lyrics:

So then I took my time
Oh what a thing to’ve done
And it was all yellow

Whether yellow was chosen arbitrarily or not, I can’t help but appreciate its thematic presence throughout the song. Unrequited love is yellow, folks.

We’ve reached the end of our examples. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music. I encourage emotion-color synesthetes (hopefully you come in droves – ha!) to share their experiences with emotion and color. As previous post comments have shown, you tend to learn a lot from one another! Also, it provides great insight for all of us non-synesthetes. The floor is yours!

Synesthesia Research – Interview w/ Kristian Marlow

Synesthesia research lab.One of the great things about operating a blog on synesthesia is that – on a daily basis – you have the chance to live as a figment in the experiences of tremendously unique individuals. We’ve been privileged enough to attract a readership with a propensity to share, and we can’t express gratitude enough for your continued emails and comment contributions. Keep ‘em coming! Aside from this common thread of “enjoying reading about others’ experiences,” we’ve had a number of users express interest in contributing to a synesthesia research study. While doing so physically (or in-person) might be preferred, it isn’t always feasible.

Contribute to Research Remotely

Lucky for all of you proximity-plagued folks, there are awesome opportunities for remote participation. One such opportunity – provided by the St. Louis Synesthesia Research Team (a lab directed by Dr. Berit Brogaard) – requires that you simply share your experiences with the research lab via email. An easy way to make an impact on research in the fields of neuroscience and synesthesia; all it takes to begin is one email.

Additionally, the St Louis-based lab (with collaborators around the globe) provides three different 10-question surveys that synesthetes can fill out online. The surveys are titled: Advanced Synesthesia, Migraine Aura and Synesthesia, and Special Talents. Check ‘em out. Fill ‘em out. Become a remote contributor!

An Interview with Kristian Marlow

Kristian Marlow, a graduate student at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and point-of-contact for the research lab, was kind enough to answer five questions that we posed about synesthesia and research. Frankly, I was blown away by his genuineness and thoroughness in his responses. I can’t urge you enough to read on.

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1. Why did you become interested in researching synesthesia?

Synesthesia research is actually a pretty recent addition to my life. A few years ago I started to become very interested in the philosophy of perception. In this discipline, a lot of time is spent trying to find empirical evidence that supports or undermines certain theories of how the mind works. I learned that research on synesthesia offers particularly good empirical evidence in these types of disputes. As I studied synesthesia, I kept coming across questions I thought I could solve and since then have spend a lot of time constructing experiments to satisfy my interests. We have a few studies coming out this that that hopefully will address some of the big research questions.

2. What is the most interesting type of synesthesia you’ve encountered?

Not being a synesthete myself, I find all types of synesthesia fascinating, from the most common types like week-color and grapheme-color synesthesia to uncommon ones like motion-sound or person-taste synesthesia. Researchers like me find that no two synesthetes are exactly alike, which is interesting in itself. But some synesthetes have experiences that are incredibly unique. One of our case studies, Jason Padgett, has visual experiences of well-formed formulas. He’s spent a lot of time drawing these and actually sells the drawings as art. They really are beautiful. It turns out that some of these drawings approximate the same patterns that have only recently become producible on computers. A while back, we did functional MRIs of JP’s brain and found that visual imagery from well-formed formulas is processed in a completely different part of the brain than is normally associated with visual imagery. That unexpected result was really cool.

Another one of our case studies, Lidell Simpson, has always heard sounds associated with motion. He was born profoundly deaf and only started using hearing aids when he was diagnosed with mixed hearing loss at the age of 5. There is a debate among researchers whether the mind can generate true sounds without any auditory stimuli, but this seems to be a clear case where that has happened. He also hears a “ping” associated with everyone he knows. He has found friends in crowded spaces just by following the pings.

One other extraordinary case is that of Derek Amato. He hit his head on the bottom of a pool and awoke 3 days later able to compose classically structured music, even though he has no formal musical training. He constantly sees different colored blocks move across his visual field. He plays the piano by following these blocks with his fingers and has become pretty famous for this extraordinary talent.

3. Which special synesthete talents show up most frequently?

Synesthetes are most often found in the arts. Many famous painters and musician are synesthetes. We don’t really know why this is the case. These synesthetes often claim that their synesthesia helps them with their art. There have been a few cases where synesthesia can be very helpful for long-term memorization and mathematical calculation, but that appears to be rare.

4. Who is your favorite famous synesthete? Why?

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a favorite famous synesthete. It’s Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and art theorist. From the moment I first came across “Composition IV” as a freshman in high school, I knew that my goal was to have that painting hanging in front of my desk. I would later learn that his paintings sell for upwards of $20M. Historians believe that Kandinsky painted his synesthetic imagery. I was so pleased to learn this fact about such a brilliant artist. How fascinating is it that such beauty can emerge from synesthesia?

5. What is the best way to get involved in synesthesia research?

There is a lot of uncharted territory that researchers are starting to cover. Many synesthetes get involved because they are interested in learning more about why they have these experiences. But the truth is we aren’t even close to knowing why. The easiest way to get involved is through an academic institution with a lab already studying synesthesia, usually made up of philosophers or neuroscientists (although faculty from other disciplines study it as well).

Some labs are well-known for their work on their topic. These include the St. Louis Synesthesia Research Team at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Eagleman Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. But you don’t have to be at an academic institution to take part in research. There are many books on the subject (a list is available on our team’s blog) and there are events held through organizations such as the American Synesthesia Association. And, of course, our team is always looking for synesthetes to participate in studies.

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Incredible stuff, right? I’d like to extend a personal thank you to Kristian (and his lab) for the contribution. And, in closing, I’ll encourage any synesthetes out there to head on over to the team’s website and (if you fancy so) to participate in their research. That’s all for now, though! Thanks for stopping back!

Have any thoughts on any of Kristian’s answers? Want to get involved in synesthesia research? Leave your comments and questions below! :)

Wassily Kandinsky: Synesthesia & Abstraction

kandinsky synesthesiaLong have I appreciated the obfuscation of reality brought forth in abstract art. As a kid, I was drawn to it. It’s careful, but it’s not too careful. The father of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky, was a synesthete. He, like few before him and John Burke after him, sought to evoke sound through vision – pitch through color. His abstract paintings are pleasantly intricate and (perhaps literally) resounding. He was a pioneer, a teacher, a cellist, a painter – the quintessential artist. And, again, dear Wassily was a synesthete. Above-left is pictured his Composition VII, painted in Munich, Germany in 1913.

Kandinsky’s Synesthetic Experiences

Born in Moscow, Russia in 1866, Kandinsky grew up a boy fascinated by color. Eventually, he would liken the painting process to that of orchestrating a musical composition. He wrote:

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

Needless to say, Kandinsky also believed in the spirituality of artwork. It is something that he would write about in length in his 1910 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. While skeptics have long debated the legitimacy of Kandinsky’s synesthesia (much as the mere existence of synesthesia has been debated), it seems to have played an undeniable, integral role in his life and artwork. He once described his discovery of the phenomenon – something that occurred during an opera performance in Moscow:

I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.

A young Wassily is said to have heard a peculiar hissing sound when mixing different colored paints in his childhood paintbox. From what I can gather, this man was indeed an authentic synesthete. He evidently had quite the imagination; this, however, was not a figment of unreality.

Read more about Kandinsky’s experiences.

The Qualities of a Color

It’s clear that this man saw more in color than the common man or woman. To him, color was more than a quality of an object, more than an adjective. Color had its own meaning, its own depth, its own purpose in our world. His description of his favorite color, blue, included “it calls man towards the infinite” – a spiritual reference, no doubt, but an honest perspective, I believe.

It’s difficult to put yourself in Kandinsky’s frame of mind. It’s neat to think about, though. Let’s give it a try. Think about your favorite color, be it Tomato red, Holly green, Sienna orange, Caribbean blue, etc. Beyond its appearance, or how it appears when manifested physically, what does it mean to you? What does it represent? What is its purpose?

If I get some good responses, I’ll chime in with my thoughts on black, which isn’t as much a color as it is a shade, but it’ll do. Don’t be shy, people. Synesthete or not, I’d love to get some abstract thinking going. Do it for Kandinsky!

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Leave your comments below, and I’ll respond promptly. :) Check out some more of Kandinsky’s artwork here.

Investigating Spatial Sequence Synesthesia

spatial sequence synesthesiaDo you visualize numerical sequences in physical space? How ’bout days of the week, months in the year, or years in the past decade? If Wednesday’s floating to your left, and 1999 is situated just above your head, you may be experiencing spatial sequence synesthesia. Since several readers have inquired about this form, I thought it appropriate for a post topic. As far as tests go, there isn’t a whole lot to discuss. This form is relatively self-explanatory. Perhaps some of you, though, who’ve had similar experiences, mightn’t have thought them to be synesthetic. Let’s dive a little deeper!

Sequences in Physical Space

When we talk about visualizing sequences in physical space, we’re not talking about outer space. If you can see that far, you’re dealing with something far more esoteric and mystifying than synesthesia. In fact, we’re talking about the space around you – your “bubble”, if you will. If – when it comes to numbers, dates, and sequences – you visualize entities in your immediate vicinity, there’s a fair chance that you’re familiar with this type.


Spatial sequence synesthetes might have a tough time convincing their friends and family members that they’re seeing what they claim to be seeing. However, Dr. David Eagleman has no trouble believing in this phenomenon; after all, he is a neuroscientist (working at the Baylor College of Medicine, no less). Appropriately enough, Dr. Eagleman’s lab has actually developed a sort of virtual reality, in which synesthetes can map their spatial visualizations. The findings are quite interesting; you can get a quick briefing by reading his abstract. There are several takeaways, of course. What I find most compelling (and in hindsight intuitive) is that the research supported “the possibility that SSS is directly related to the sequence representations in nonsynesthetes” (Eagleman, 2009). Month visualizations, for instance, were generally mapped from left to right, which is consistent with the “directional bias” of Western speakers.

A Memory Advantage?

One study, conducted by Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh in the UK, found that spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference. In other words, where the nonsynesthete needs to create a mnemonic device to remember a sequence (like “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.”), the synesthete can simply reference their spatial visualizations. Read the full coverage of this study on ScienceMag.org. It’s worth the five minutes it takes to peruse. So, really, there is a subtle memory advantage. It isn’t eidetic (or photographic), though.

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This is certainly one of the most interesting forms of synesthesia that I’ve written on, and I’d love to learn more. Feel free to share your experiences anonymously, if you’d like! I’ve been tossing around the idea of publishing a collection of anonymous synesthetic experiences, with the thought that it might be beneficial for others to reference. Of course, all experiences published would be with the permission of the sharer, and (as I mentioned) each synesthetic experience would be published anonymously. Do share your thoughts on this, loyal readers!

That’s all for now, though! Whether tomorrow’s on your left or on your right, make it a fabulous day!

Credit for this image goes to People.Brunel.Ac.Uk