I’m Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard Med and Mass General and author of the memoir Mirror Touch. Among many, I have a form of synesthesia called “mirror touch”—my brain makes me literally feel what it sees other people feel...AMA!
Apr 14th 2018 by joelsalinas • 35 Questions • 122 Points
Hi Reddit! I’m Joel Salinas, a neurologist that specializes in cognitive and behavioral neurology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the memoir Mirror Touch.
Proof photo: imgur.com/GUstmJn
Short Description: I have synesthesia, which is a neurobiologically-based perceptual phenomenon that means that, whenever I experience something with one of my senses, I involuntary experience it through other senses, too. Among several forms of synesthesia, one form of synesthesia I have is mirror-touch synesthesia ("mirror touch" for short). The easiest way to understand mirror touch is for me to say that whatever I see someone else feel -- physically, emotionally -- my brain makes me literally feel, too. If you’re slapped on your right wrist, I feel like I’m slapped on your left wrist. If you’re gasping for air, I feel like I’m gasping for air. If you have morning sickness, I feel like I have morning sickness. Because of mirror touch, my brain categorizes you and me as the same person and tries to recreate your experience based on the situation and my own past experiences. In other words, “Mirror touch” is the experience of physically feeling my brain’s take on the physical sensations of whoever I see. Mirror touch is a mindblowing aspect of the brain that people hardly know about and -- whether you have mirror touch or not -- the more you learn about it, the more it’ll make you rethink every interaction you have.
If you’re slapped on your right wrist, I feel like I’m slapped on your left wrist. If you’re gasping for air, I feel like I’m gasping for air. If you have morning sickness, I feel like I have morning sickness. The mirrored sensations can range anywhere from pleasure to pain based on the situation and my brain’s past experiences. If anything, mirror touch is like an automatic, conscious, very physical super empathy.
TL;DR Description: Synesthesia is a family of unique perceptual phenomena (i.e., sensory experiences) that involves one type of sensory information triggering another (apparently unrelated) type of sensory information. This can involve experiencing colors with letters, shapes with sounds, taste with smells, and many many more exotic combinations.
Mirror touch can thus be considered the synesthetic mixing of sight (and often other senses) with touch. Specifically, the sight of other people triggers a mirrored touch-experience. For example, if I were to see someone in front of me stroking their right cheek, I would feel a simultaneous physical sensation of a phantom finger stroking my left cheek.
In seeing that touch, in a way, my brain automatically assumes that they are my reflection or that I am their reflection. In doing so, my brain uses whatever past experiences and predictions it can muster to conjure up the physical experience of touch on my skin, even though most of the time I know that it’s in my brain and not actually on my skin or in my body.
The feeling is literal, mechanical, and pretty vivid. It's a measurable, falsifiable (therefore, not pseudoscientific) experience that I think highlights all the different ways that our brains can take shape due to genetic differences and much more.
If we were to slow down the mirror-touch experience and zoom in on what’s going on, it’s not like a psychic link with the other person where their mental experience is channeled into me through some kind of pixie dust. Mirror touch occurs completely through my brain and my senses, not through anything supernatural.
So, if I were hypothetically thrown into a silent, dark sensory deprivation tank -- like Eleven on Stranger Things -- and I'm completely unaware that there's anyone else outside the tank, my brain would have no information to trigger the mirror touch experience.
The mirrored sensations can be anywhere from pleasurable to painful depending on how my brain categorizes the information, which is based on context and my past experiences. And there's really no limit to what my brain will try to recreate -- as close as possible -- regardless of what it sees, and regardless of whether I've physically experienced it before, like childbirth or death.
If anything, mirror touch works more like a kind of automatic, conscious, very physical super empathy.
That said: While mirror touch is a very natural part of my day-to-day life given that I’ve had it since I can remember, being a neurologist that works with patients on a daily basis and having mirror touch makes for an... interesting experience.
I think my uncommon personal experience with mirror touch drew me toward medicine since childhood, and has continued to shape me as a doctor. It means that I’m more likely to share a deeper connection with patients, their suffering, and ultimately their care. The decision to pursue medicine really solidified while I was in the Amazon rainforest studying the interaction of biological health--physical and mental--with how we relate with one another.
Having a little more insight into what my patients are feeling than most, I've always placed a lot of importance on my patients' needs as a person. Our thoughts, our feelings, and how we perceive and predict the world around us is precious. It helps shape who we are as a person, and other people in kind. This is why, in medical school, I was spellbound by the beauty and marvel of the brain and the emergence of human behavior, moment-to-moment. Thus, to be a neurologist, caring for people and their whole nervous system -- the motherboard of our reality -- represented a special opportunity to have a profound impact on a person's life.
Reach out to talk about synesthesia, mirror touch, neurodiversity, brain health, or anything really (I'm chatty--and when I say “anything” I really mean ANYTHING)!
If you need more convincing I’m real--
You can check out some of my interviews here:
You can check out peer-reviewed studies about mirror touch in reputable scientific journals here.
More info here:
Connect and/or stalk me here:
Really looking forward to chatting with you!
UPDATE: Going to step away, but I'll be back at 5pm EST to answer more of your questions!
UPDATE: I'm back and ready for more questions! Bring 'em on!
UPDATE: Thank you so much for all your questions! This was a lot of fun! I might pop back in later tonight to answer more questions, so please feel free to keep askin' away!
UPDATE: I'm back to answer a few more questions before callin' it a night!
UPDATE: Time for this neurologist to practice what he preaches and head to bed! Thank you, thank you, thank you all for asking so many awesome questions!!
Depends on what you mean by “odd”... BUT... my optic nerves aren’t selective based on the subject matter... so mirror touch works for that, too!
How do the people you associate with feel a out your superhuman level of empathy? Does it change how they interact with you?
I don’t talk about it openly very much unless it’s relevant, though the people that are aware can respond many different ways. For example, some people may simply be fascinated and just want to know more and will ask all sorts of great questions. Other people may actually be rather intimidated and kind of try to avoid or almost hide themselves. Other people really really really want me to feel their pain deliberately, so that they feel a little less alone in that experience. Overall, though, I think people, as they spend more time around me, they become pretty comfortable and enjoy the company of someone who can be attentive and considerate with them as if we’re the same person.
Does the physical touch sensation occur even in response to things happening within your field of view but outside your immediate focus of attention? (So that you feel something on your body and then have to look around to see what the cause was.)
Yes! And it can be so weird. For example, just the other day, I was working on my computer at a coffee shop and I kept feeling the sensation of phantom fingers going into my mouth, just fiddling around in there and I was like "WTH IS THIS?!" and just to my left there was a guy who had just devoured a spinach feta wrap and was trying to harvest all the spinach between his teeth.
My mentor in grad school studied Synesthesia. I found it very fascinating. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Do you know if there are any cases of mirror touch existing in a para/quadriplegic individual?
Hmm.... I actually know of any specific cases of people with paralysis that have mirror touch, but I believe there is something to be said for the neuroplasticity changes that can occur in the setting of recovery after paralysis or amputation. Some of this has been described by people like VS Ramachandran. I wouldn’t be surprised that someone who is paralyzed would continue to experience the mirrored sensations regardless of actually being paralyzed since it’s more of a top-down brain process. It’s even possible that the mirror touch sensations may be EXTRA vivid because there is no bottom-up sensory information “veto-ing” the top-down sensory information.
The Yucatan is quite distant from Nicaragua. I am interested in your Nicaraguan heritage.
That's right--both of my parents are originally from Nicaragua. There's likely ancestral Mesoamerican influences there, which would include Mayan. There's also some ancestry that is from Asia (crossing the Bering strait during the Ice Age) as well as some European (Spanish/Iberian and Scandanavian). Of course, there's also the African that we all have. Shout out to our Big Mama Lucy)!
Depends on the song and the section of the music, but the opening of this has a lot of steely blues, lavenders, pinks, and greys lots of shades with fun ridges kind of like the ridges of a thin comb.
Kind of! It’s similar to what’s known as Ordinal Linguistic Personification (or OLP for short), where particularly numbers for me not only have specific colors (grapheme-color synesthesia) but also personality traits. For example, the number 3 is purple-indigo color and is a number that consistently hides it’s true potential. In a way it’s humble, but also doesn’t really put itself out there. When I see people, the process happens in reverse very quickly, where I experience a color, which is tied to a number, which is then tied to the personality traits. In a way, it’s like implicit bias, but color-number-coded. A friend of mine in medical school was a great big turquoise 7 (awkwardly endearing) with a few 4s (steely gray blue, pacific and friendly) and a few chartreuse 6s (just plain weird). Altogether, over time, more numbers populated his mosaic leading into the image of a turquoise blue lake sitting in a pale gray crater (the center was specifically Pantone 3245).
What parts of Mirror touch make you more creative than other types of synesthesia or people who do not have Synesthesia ?
The definition of creativity, at least when it's studied, relies heavily on there not just being an original or innovative idea but also some degree of actual creation or a product. People with synesthesia in general, probably because of their highly associative thinking, do score higher on tests of creative thinking, though they are not necessarily more productive at creating. That said, people with mirror touch may be more attuned to specific body positioning for choreography or have a stockpile of vivid physical experiences related to body positioning that can maybe make them exceptional at performance and acting, where their acting can be vivid or authentic.
On an NPR "Invisibilia" program, they covered a woman with mirror touch synesthesia named Amanda. The condition caused her problems throughout her life, to the point where she was alienated from her family and finally basically became a recluse to avoid the exhaustion and confusion of the extra stimulation and try to maintain some self-boundaries. How has the condition been such a rewarding adventure for you and such a curse for her? Do you think the condition could have been problematic for you under other circumstances?
I think this is interesting because they actually reached out to me and I phone call with them. They wanted to particularly highlight someone who was overwhelmed by this experience, I think possibly because they felt it might be a more compelling story. Though, the challenge here is that begins to paint a cultural picture of mirror touch as a curse/condition/disease/negative thing. How positive or negative the experience is depends a lot on the person, their past experiences (e.g., trauma), and their own ability to regulate their attention and their response to the world around them (i.e., executive functioning). I’ve spent a bit of time reflecting on why my situation is so unique and there’s several factors. Part of it may be my own neurobiology has some of the “positive” and less of the “detrimental” components. Another part of it may have been the environment that I grew up in, where I was taught to seek out uncomfortable situations to learn from them rather than avoid them. Another part of it is spending a lot of my time, almost constantly, developing what I’ve come to call a “mandatory mindfulness” which has helped. I describe more specifics as to what I’ve done to cultivate this in mah book and in this reply here.
Might be a bit late to the party but here goes:
How has your condition affected your sexual orientation?
Perhaps you’re here at just the right time! For my own sexual orientation, mirror touch in part has allowed me to connect and relate with the experience of other sexes and genders different from my own. It’s also made the experience of being physically in touch with someone that visually looks more like me (more of a one-to-one correspondence/congruence) much more vivid (i.e., it’s easier for my brain to make a hyperreal, physical empathetic experience the more past experiences and information to automatically fit the situation at full volume). In learning about mirror touch, it also helped me have a better understanding of myself (my brain, my thoughts, my desires, etc) and to be much more at ease identifying as not anyone one specific easy-to-pin-down label -- even if it can create discomfort in others from its inherent uncertainty. While I’ve identified as gay for many years now, I think what I described above is much more consistent with the reality of my sex and gender-based attraction. Some call this being bisexual, some call it pansexual, some call it fluid, and some call it queer. I’m open to using whatever language leads to better, more positive communication so long as I can acknowledge that it doesn’t come at the cost of me feeling that I’m sacrificing a significant part of myself at the behest of another person. In other words, whoever I’m speaking to about this (when it’s relevant) it’s important that I find out what their definitions are so that I can choose out of their personal glossary what is the most accurate term for me.