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

16 Comments on “Mirror-Touch Synesthesia: Pain & Empathy”

    • by AC

    The first experience I remember of this was when I was very little and was watching the movie, Back to the Future. There is a scene where a guy is twisting another guy’s arm (in the parking lot, I think) and it seems like he’s going to break it (or it seemed that way to me when I was watching it.) I started to pass out from the pain. I will never forget that feeling and I was really scared, but I didn’t tell anyone. I’ve always been very hyper-empathetic, but I don’t always have the physical touch responses, or it could be that I’m just so used to it, I’ve tuned it out. Growing up was extremely difficult for me, especially because my mother is probably one of the least empathetic people I know. I was always being told I was too sensitive- as if it was a choice.

    • by Ingrid

    I believe I have mirror > touch synesthesia, although I don’t feel it as strongly as other types I have. I do though, feel mirror > emotion very strongly. Like an insanly huge feeling of empathy. Sort of.

    • by Elena

    When I started school in the ‘70s, my teacher told my mother that I was possibly suffering from schizophrenia. I saw black numbers dancing. Oddly enough, only numbers with that specific color. Then, I constantly reiterated that the days of the week were as follow: Monday is black, Tuesday is yellow, Wednesday is green, Thursday is purple, Friday is red, Saturday is orange (smell like oranges) and Sunday is blue (smell like grapes). I could only smell the weekend and when the teacher pronounced the days of the week, I heard an organ note for each day. I felt pain in my knees and thighs when I saw anyone getting hurt (I still do). Sometimes the pain was in my stomach. I used to hug myself to make the pain stop. I did math in open spaces, I saw words too, and I was a top notch speller because of that advantage. I became depress since no one could understand this amazing gift. I stop telling people about the things I was able to see, feel and smell. Then, the gift slowly faded as I became older. I can’t play any instrument, but if I hear a small portion of a song that I heard before, I can immediately tell you the title. My son plays the guitar and I can tell him without looking at either him or his guitar when he makes a mistake. My pain had increased though. I can’t even hear people talk about injuries or read about them. I see movies or TV shows and I clinch so hard when someone gets hurts or killed!

    • by Leander Lacy

    I know this is strange, but I actually have this mirror-touch synesthesia. I have always had it and just thought it was normal until, now in my 30′s, I am realizing this is a unique phenomenon. This occurs most often with pain. For instance, if I see you cut your finger, my finger will feel pain at the exact same spot. It use to cripple me in instances when I have to help others, but because I have dealt with it openly for so long, I can push past the pain and just help the person in need. I just decided search the internet this morning for more about my condition and stumbled across the same science article. Thanks for writing up your blog!

    • by MOA

    I remember the first one to notice something was weird about me was my brother, it was a long time ago and we were watching a movie. My brother saw me clutching my stomach during a violent scene and so I told him about the pain. None of us took it seriously, and it simply became a family joke “Your conscience is in your belly” It made no difference, really, where the pain was, except for the shiver I may sometimes get on the spot of the pain along with the ache in my stomach. I’d just assumed that everybody else felt it, but simply didn’t show it. I tried mentioning it in front of some other people a few times but always got the same reaction that said they had no idea what I was talking about. That was when I gave up and decided I was just weird and it wouldn’t change anything whether or not it hurts. It wasn’t only when seeing something violent but also when I hear it that I get this ache. I’m glad I saw this article, makes me feel a lot better about myself ^-^

    • by Ani makebish

    I have a very strong mirror touch synesthesia. I don’t just feel pain and stuff like that. I can actually feel when somebody is holding something too, like balloons or styrophome. My friends think its about the coolest thing ever. And sometimes, I find it fun. But others… You know. Like someone cutting their knee on gravel.

    • by Angela

    As a child, I assumed it was normal. When I tried to explain it to people who didn’t understand, I assumed I was an isolated case. I recently discovered this form of synesthesia, and am happy to see it correlated to empathy…. I have always been told I’m too sensitive.

    I feel a shooting pain starting in my heel and shooting through my thighs when I witness someone being hurt, or hear someone explaining a painful incident. On a few distracted occasions, I’ve actually scratched through the skin on my thighs (this is rare; has only happened twice when witnessing near death situations: a horrific car accident and a quadruple bypass surgery). I always have a shooting pain through my legs, but I will sometimes feel an isolated pain as well… My grades suffered in World Geography after my teacher lost her finger in a table saw accident. My hands would experience very sharp pains from looking at her, and I felt awful pains in anatomy when we had to do dissections. I’ve been a vegetarian for 7 years, and used to experience pain not from eating meat, but from witnessing it being cut. I hated steak because I would feel like my legs were being cut when I saw someone cutting it.

    I also feel a physical sensation from emotions. If I’m talking to someone who is sad, I feel something similar to the nervous “butterflies” feeling that people get in their stomachs when they’re nervous, but I feel it behind my knees. I get tingling feelings behind my knees for sadness, on my chest for happiness, and I feel as though someone is rubbing a warm feather duster over my shoulders when I witness two people in love… I don’t believe that the emotional to physical connection is mirror touch, but I do feel like they’re related in some way.

    • by wes

    This is amazing to hear that this has a name. I never imagined other people experiencing it. I’m 35 and have had it sense childhood. Movies, descriptions, and watching an injury will easily trigger it. It’s not point specific, more a shock to the nervous system rooted from the base of my skull – its awesome…

    • by Kimblie

    Elena sounds just like me. . .
    Music is so soothing but missed notes and beats hurts my nervous systems like not just my ears. I cant watch movies or anything where people are in pain or hurting in anyway. My stomach and body begin to hurt. I have had stomach problems since I was a child. I have been tested for everything but nothing can be found. I can sense and feel others problems and feelings when I am talking to them . . .it is very hard at times but sometimes I can console them and they don’t know what I sense. I have people come up and talk to me about their life out of the blue, complete strangers. My husband always ask me do you know them and I say no but they talk to me as if they do. I use to think it strange but now it just seem normal. My grandmother and mother were both this way. I cant even watch Home Funniest Videos!! I don’t find them funny at all!!! I could go on and on but. . . .

    • by Julie

    I just learned about the mirror-touch aspect of synesthesia today from a related article posted on BBC News. Fascinating. I knew for some time that I have grapheme, but interestingly I have a very successful practice as a massage therapist. The thing I hear most often from clients on the table is “how do you always know exactly where it hurts?”–I think this article just answered that. Thank you.

    • by Tammy

    I’ve always been empathetic to others; I cry easily when I see something sad on TV or hear someone tell a sad story or when I read one. When I see someone get hurt or hear someone talk about their injuries, I get a flash of pain – like one feels during a flu – on the backs of my arms and torso. It has increased in intensity in the last year or so. Watching AFV is almost torturous. I’m just glad to know I’m not alone.

    • by SE

    Whenever I see someone fall, trip, etc at the moment of impact i feel a jolt, almost like an electric shock that goes through me but is strongest in the legs through to my toes. It’s like getting a strong zap. It was particularly difficult when my children were small & frequently falling down!

    • by Jacqui

    I have recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in my searches on the subject also looked into why I experience physical pain when I see someone hurt. I have always experienced this and thought it normal but have come to realise that most people don’t experience this. If i see someone injured such as in a fall, I get very strong sharp pain in the top of my legs (radiating down to my knees or up to my hips), or in my shoulders or my forearms. The pain is generally quite quick but can leave a dull ache that can last for an hour or so. This is especially strong when I see a child fall over for example, but the pain I experience does not seem to necessarily bear resemblance to the injury suffered. I was quite amazed to find that this is a real condition and I’m interested to know if there is any connection to fibromyalgia and I’m thinking of broaching the subject when I see my doctor next.

    • by Catherine

    I was relieved to read one of the comments above, because it exactly describes my own experience. I don’t have true mirror-touch, as I only have it for pain and I don’t usually feel it in the same part of the body, but it’s always been there. I thought everyone had the same experience as me until I heard a radio program a few years ago about mirror-touch synesthesia and then asked my children if they felt pain on seeing (or hearing about) injury, and both said no! If I see someone injured, particularly if there is blood, I get a sharp pain in the backs of my knees and insides of my thighs, and sometimes on one upper arm, and my stomach area. Once, seeing an old lady fall and hit her head on the pavement, I had to sit down, the pain and distress were so great. Over time this has developed; bizarrely, if I were to knock the wing mirror of my car, I would get a pain in the corresponding upper arm! I also have a reaction to hearing about injury, particularly to the head, which I see as a heightened form of empathy. Thank you for your website; it makes me feel a bit less mad! Oh, by the way, don’t know if this is synesthesia or something less exotic, but if I hit my head or see someone else hitting theirs (hard), I get a peculiar acrid smell in my nostrils…

    • by Lillie

    I have come to believe (but have not been professionally diagnosed) with this. A few days ago my grandmother had a pretty rough fall she slipped her patella, fractured 2 ribs (bruised several others), and broke the thumb and hand. When I heard her diagnosis my chest, hand and knee all started to hurt in different ways. I was very confused and really kinda scared as well. I talked to my grandma and she said it was “sympathetic pain” which is usually associated with anxiety (which I have-GAD.) and people who are very sympathetic and empathetic people. (I’m a sucker. I hate seeing other people sad/pained/etc.). This article is really interesting and I’m sure even people who don’t have his also find it intriguing.

    • by Richard

    This is the first time I have heard of mirror-touch synesthesia. I only found out about it because I was trying to find out what is wrong with me. This hypersensitivity dose not happen all the time but can be very noticeable when I am or others are stressed the last event being last night talking about funeral arrangements with one of my wife’s sick relatives. She suffered from pain attack, by the end of the night I was very soar which last several hours after getting home. I also had a similar event when I visited my sister in-law in hospital, I tried to sit quietly in a corner out of the way but after a while I even had been noticed by the nursing staff who started to question my health. This only stopped by removing my self from the hospital room. These were two incidents that come to mind but their have been others. When I was younger I idolised Spock for Star Trek because he could isolate himself from his emotions. I have tried most of my life to do just that so that I would fit in and be normal so it is a bit of a relief to find out that this is not uncommon.

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