banner by Ellen Cadden

My Brain, Your Pain

by McKenzie Sicke

Between finals, term papers and every rough patch we collectively endure, the universal cry of consolation “I feel” resonates with college students everywhere. While this phrase may just seem like an expression to most students, it quite literally defines others’ lives.

In normally developed human brains, mirror neurons allow us to sympathize with others and allow us to figuratively “put ourselves in their shoes.” But atypical to most nervous systems, a condition called mirror-touch synesthesia results in the increase of mirror neurons’ presence in brains. Concomitantly, these individuals may experience shrinking of the area of the brain determining sense of self. Because people living with mirror-touch synesthesia frequently experience a combination of these irregularities, they are often unable to separate their hyper-empathy of others’ emotions from their own.

The broad category of synesthesia is generally caused by sensory or cognitive pathways stimulating each other, triggering involuntary experiences. These sudden occurrences span a wide spectrum: for instance, people living with grapheme-color synesthesia sense colors for letters and numbers; meanwhile, people living with chromesthesia experience sounds triggering colors. While synesthetes experience these constant and generic perceptions, their condition has a sense of location allowing them to ‘look’ at certain places in their mind to trigger such sensations.

Specifically, mirror-touch synesthesia exists in two subtypes: one mirrors sensations on the opposite side of the body as the other person’s sensation, while the second replicates sensations on the same side of the body. Like many conditions, mirror-touch synesthesia is experienced on a spectrum. Synesthetes can experience a range of manifestations from feeling stretched when walking by a very tall person to passing out when viewing someone struck with a blunt object. Although 1.6 percent of the population experience at least partial mirror-touch synesthesia, this neurological condition is excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) because synesthetes retain their daily functioning. However in extreme cases, mirror-touch synesthetes may live isolated lives due to their inability to cope with the never-ending flood of stimuli.

Nonetheless, most mirror-touch synesthetes are able to manage their condition through medication and therapy to minimize the sensory overload. Through targeted therapy, psychiatrists and psychologists help patients learn to visualize a shield between themselves and others. By imagining this shield patients can create a mental barrier against feelings that are not their own.

While some try to minimize the sensations accompanying mirror-touch synesthesia, others embrace it for the benefit of others. At Massachusetts General Hospital, neurologist Dr. Joel Salinas has experienced the condition throughout his life. Every day Salinas exposes himself to seemingly endless amounts of physical and emotional pain, but he manages to cope with the ‘white noise’ of other people’s sensations. In the wake of advanced technology flooding the diagnostic process, doctors are sometimes criticized for lacking the observant human connection that patients seek. Although he cannot read patients’ minds, Salinas uses his heightened empathy for facial expressions and emotional states to his advantage to not only pinpoint patients’ conditions, but also tailor his quality of care for patients. Since focusing too long on his ambient feelings can be taxing, Salinas has learned to remain unattached from the flock of sensations he encounters daily throughout the hospital.

Mirror-touch synesthesia provides a look into how mirror neurons impact our everyday functioning, but there is still much to discover about these perplexing cells. The concept of reading minds has always been reserved for superhero movies, but mirror-touch synesthesia brings this super power into the world of science and technology. As telepathy transcends science fiction into reality, our efforts to understand one another may reveal what the future holds for sharing perspectives and understanding the human connection.