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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.

In my recent memoir, Mirror Touch, I share my story and what I’ve learned from my experience living with a brain that blurs that boundaries between myself and other people: mirrortouchbook.com

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:

joelsalinasmd.com/press

BBC

CNN

You can check out peer-reviewed studies about mirror touch in reputable scientific journals here.

More info here:

joelsalinasmd.com

Wikipedia

Connect and/or stalk me here:

twitter.com/joelasalinasmd

facebook.com/joelsalinasmd

instagram.com/joelsalinasmd

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!!

Q:

Is watching porn an odd experience?

A:

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!


Q:

“Odd” as in it’s weird to watch? Do you feel like you’re apart of it, or is it the usual (not usual but ya know) viewing experience?

A:

It can be weird, but mostly can feel pretty great, feeling as though I’m a part of it. While I can’t say for certain what it’s like for non-synesthetes in comparison, for me it’s like... beyond 3-D... it’s 4-D+++++.................+.


Q:

How do the people you associate with feel a out your superhuman level of empathy? Does it change how they interact with you?

A:

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.


Q:

Does it work with pictures and movies or just in the real world?

What if somebody touches something you have no idea what it feels like?

A:

It works with any sensory information (in cognitive neuroscience, some have actually begun to refer to mirror-touch synesthesia as “mirror-sensory synesthesia”). So, yes, pictures and movies are interpreted by my brain as well. The more “real” the sensory experience, the more vivid the mirror touch sensations are. My brain automatically uses information based off of context and my own past experiences to extrapolate the sensation feels like - so it may not be 100% accurate to the other person’s experience, though can still be extremely vivid.


Q:

Have you tried VR yet? I would think that mirror touch synesthesia would make VR like 5 levels of awesome.

A:

Heck yeah! I love VR, AR, and mixed reality experiences. It’s extra-immersive to the point where I can quickly forget about real reality altogether.


Q:

If you are watching a fight and one person ends of being cut with a knife, do you feel the anger of the person cutting, the sensation of being cut, the emotional aspect of being cut or all three at once?

A:

The easiest way to put it would be to say that it’s all three at once. However, the experience that is most vivid be the one that hogs most of my brain’s “attention” bandwidth. So, if my brain identifies the most with the person being stabbed, I would feel being stabbed more times per second than the hand of the person being stabbed. This is actually similar to when watch or perform a lumbar puncture, where I’m performing/feeling the process of doing the spinal tap while also feeling the experience of having the needle placed into my back.


Q:

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.)

A:

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.


Q:

If you’re ill and you see somebody who is in perfect health and doing healthy stuff do you feel better as a result?

A:

Yes! It’s similar to when I’m feeling down, I will pay more attention to people who are smiling or laughing so that the mirrored sensations feel like my own and as a result I tend to feel a bit better. Also, these types of hug-videos are great.


Q:

How do you see the music of Billy Joel ?

A:

Depends on which one! For example, We Didn’t Start the Fire is a mix of up-and-down bar shapes that oranges and yellows which sharp corners and points along its ridges. Also, Billy Joel has synesthesia. True story!

Also true story, before I was born my parents were going to name me Tech.... Then they vetoed this (thank goodness) and then they were dead set on naming me Bon Jovi.

No, really.

And in the end, my parents vetoed this again (I think my life may have been very different had I been named Bon Jovi Salinas....) and ultimately went with the Joel from Billy Joel... though with a Spanish-flare... so it’s pronounced “joh-EHL”. It was only later that I found out that the pronunciation of my name is closer to the actual pronunciation of the origin of the name, which is the Hebrew “Yoel”, who is a prophet and the name means “God’s will”.

The Book of Joel.

Also, the Book of Joel.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

I’m so glad you’re doing this AMA! I have what I always thought was just extreme empathy where I feel pain when I perceive someone else to be in pain, as you have described, but I don’t get the more positive sensations like you. I am also inclined to be very reflective of emotions.

I know it’s not fair because you don’t know anything else about me other than what I’ve briefly mentioned above, but why do you think I am only inclined to feel pain and not more positive sensations?

A:

Sorry to hear that you experience mostly the painful sensations. Exactly why can depend on a lot of factors, but I could speculate that it may have to do with a combination of attention (i.e., the “spotlight” of the mind) and having very salient past experiences related to pain. I don’t think that this has to be the case permanently, because our brain is plastic that means that we can help to shape what our brain draws attention to and what it recreates most vividly.


Q:

Ever experiment with psychoactive chemicals?

A:

Not yet! See here.


Q:

If you were to be shown a high speed (say 15 frames a second) video of images of people being hurt - would you overload and pass out? I don't necessarily mean torture, but if you were to exposed to individuals in pain at such a rate, would you eventually just shut down?

I've passed out due to high levels of pain twice; kidney stones and a broken sternum. It seems to me that for it to be real, I'd have to pass out.

A:

I think it’s possible, though it depends on how vivid or unexpected the images are. I think the quantity of the images may not be as significant as the vividness of the experience. There was a patient I saw who had self-mutilating tics. He pushes his knuckles up against the corner of his mouth while grinding his teeth and chewing on the inside of his cheek. While watching him do this with all his force, I felt a painful BUZZ shoot through my cheek and into my teeth with each of his tics. It was so vivid it bordered on hallucination, and in those cases it can be rather overwhelming. If I were to have several of these experiences in a train, I think there may be a possibility that it would trigger something like a vasovagal response AKA fainting.


Q:

That's interesting. I think the mirror touch synesthesia is quite amazing in itself, but I would find it to be far more material - more viscerally tangible - if it would push people to those extremes.

So, seeing terribly vivid images causes fainting. Seeing vivid erotic images triggers orgasm, such as the individual expected asked you about in regards to porn.

Dunno, I would find that visually measurable and therefore terrifying.

A:

There are definitely people with mirror touch who in seeing someone suddenly punched do pass out, which is why I consider myself one of the lucky people with mirror touch in that many others will become total shut-ins and avoid people altogether. I think I might be a bit of an exception in that I've worked hard so that sort of thing wouldn't happen to me in the case of a medical emergency. That said, the other thing you mentioned... it does happen.


Q:

Hello Dr. Salines, thank you for doing this AMA.

I'm wondering, how do you experience sex with another person?
I would imagine that the additional feedback could become quite overwhelming?

A:

You’re welcome! And may the saline be with you!

It’s similar to a mirror facing another mirror, where it can be maybe not overwhelming per se, so much as very intense. And this intensity can be... generally... pretty good! Also, the more the other person’s body looks like my own, the more vivid the experience, so it really is mirrored as much as possible.


Q:

Do you believe in GOD or kind of spiritually?

A:

I was raised Roman Catholic so I definitely have a cultural identification to this religion. Now, in terms of spirituality, for me it really ties to experiencing a sense of awe and respect for the universe, every person, every atom, every particle. There’s sense of divinity to everything. Some might call this pantheism, but all-in-all it’s a sense of gratitude that I’m not dead yet.


Q:

I’ve heard about this happening in fathers-to-be, though I forget what it’s called in their cases - I’m guessing this may happen because of these fathers-to-be empathizing strongly with their pregnant partners?

A:

I think you’re referring to “sympathy pain”, also known as Couvade syndrome. It is similar, and actually connectivity fMRI research looking at brain activity with the experience of pain, which is identical much of the mirroring system, suggests that the mirroring system activity is the greatest when you see a video of yourself in pain. This activity, interestingly, is very very similar when you see a spouse or a close loved one experiencing pain (as if it really were you). The difference from mirror touch here being that the experience is unconscious, while with mirror touch it is consciously perceived. Another term for it is known as conscious vicarious tactile perception.


Q:

Are you left-handed?

A:

Nope!


Q:

The Yucatan is quite distant from Nicaragua. I am interested in your Nicaraguan heritage.

A:

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)!


Q:

Hi, thanks for doing for doing this AMA~!

I know throughout your memoir, there are bits about “ego dissolution / ego-loss”—as in, when sense-perception and empathetic perspective-taking becomes too large and wide-ranging, that actually, self-representation and desires can be repressed from being too pliable. I feel like constant sensory overload (particularly touch/proprioception) can also cause a detachment from your physical body—something akin to dissociation.

Q: I was curious if there was a conscious process or practice for you throughout life that occurred for “reconciling” the expansive ego (identity) into a more contained, tangible form, and for connecting directly with your physical body?

I have mirror touch, and for me, the issue of “too expansive ego/personality” from mirror-touch sensory issues caused an extra sensitivity to existential awareness, and required so much (constant) soul-searching on my end—including some intense withdrawing/boundary forming to disentangle from others, and from the automatic “code-switching” personality that occurs in response to others. Yet, it’s still hard to condense or understand even today.

A:

I think I can summarize my response in 3 parts:

1. Firm yet thoughtful boundaries. Understanding my own reserves and what the context/situation is and what I can allow and provide -- giving that much and not more than what I estimate that I can give in a ‘healthy’ way. I’m deliberate also when I use the term “thoughtful” since you also don’t want to cause harm to others when the expense is relatively low or when the gain will more than make up for the expense.

2. Resilience. This means making sure that there’s an ounce or more of resilience/reserve for every ounce of empathy and (including this concept of ego-dissolution). That means usually doing a lot of self care. If the self care guardrails are not there, then the amount of empathy that can be safely provided is going to be limited.

For #1 and #2, finding the right “goldilocks zone” moment to moment is important and then...

3. Practice, practice, practice. Practicing especially navigating the extremes of empathy and all these sensory experiences. In turn, it’s a matter of building the neural systems up like muscles that allow for adequate regulation of attention and self-regulation (meaning regularly of affect, bodily responses, relaxation response, behavior, allowing delays for processing, etc). This can also include practices like the “body scan” meditation where attention is deliberately placed on different aspects of your body (in Chapter 7, I give the example of Rosie and her mother helping her with what they “brain gym”), meditations that are specific to keeping your attention on one or more senses (e.g., the sounds around you), and even the metta (AKA loving-kindness) meditation that more specifically address switching perspectives from your own physical body and that of people who you are more willing to identify with and slowly moving outward from there.

I’d say #3 is a critical one - and one that has a lot of buddhist elements tied to it. The buddhist nun Jeong Kwon it nicely when she described it as mastering the ability to navigate between being within the self and being in the other.

Keep in mind, I’m still mastering all this stuff on my own. I think I’ve made great advances personally but by no means am I beyond being a flawed and often silly human organism.

Oh, and if it helps, another way I think about #1, 2, and 3 actually is in the mental framework of MMORPGs:

1) HP/MP Heal Budgeting

2) Building up Max HP and Actual Max HP (e.g., +DEF, +Stoneskin, +Regen)

3) Leveling Up!


Q:

How do see the music of bob Dylan ?

A:

Depends on the song and the section, but for Mr. Tambourine Man, many of the colors are actually quite similar to the colors that you would see during the early part of a sunset. There’s also a few licks of black in there, too!


Q:

How do you see the music of phantom of opera?

A:

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.


Q:

Hi Doctor! Thank you for providing your experience-- My question is, how do you think your synesthesia has influenced your choice of actions when they have an affect on others/your interactions with other people? For instance, would you find yourself to be less likely to commit acts such as cheating on a significant other or lying to someone due to knowing you would experience their hurt/pain after having done so?

A:

Howdy!

I think synesthesia and specifically, mirror touch, play a significant role in my behavior and what’s known as moral decision-making. Many of these processes are working at the conscious level, but especially below the level of consciousness to predict how good or not-good the consequences of an action will be. Therefore, because I have such a reflexive and vivid mirrored sensation linked to others, my brain is extra aware of how not-good an action will be so, such as cheating on a significant other or lying on that significant other. This can be problematic though, when the action may be moral (on my part) but actually is likely to disappoint the other. Really, saying no and setting the right boundaries with the people I love and care for is a bit of a life struggle and something that I deliberately continue to work on.


Q:

How did you know I was from Texas?? 😉


Q:

I realize you're mostly here to talk about tire experiences, but since you're here...I've been diagnosed with Parsonage-Turner Syndrome, and it's hard to find much info about it on Google. Know of other places I could look? I've just started PT, and I'm taking Vitamin B, but I'd sure like to find out more about causes and any other stuff I could be doing to help myself and my arm.

A:

I’m open to any and all questions, so your question is definitely welcome!

Sorry to hear about your Parsonage-Turner Syndrome and I’m glad to hear that you are working with a team that’s helping you out. Generally, the treatment depends on the most likely cause. For example, if it’s determined to be due to an autoimmune process, then working with your neurologist to develop a medication regimen for immunosuppressants and/or anti-inflammatories will be key. In terms of recovery, working with an occupational therapist who can help you recover as much strength as possible will help the nerves to grow back and bring the strength back as close to baseline as possible. I think taking Vitamin B12 and/or B6 are great ideas as they can be helpful for nerve health in general, though the data is limited for specific conditions, like Parsonage-Turner. Theoretically, it would likely help.


Q:

Do you see people personalitys as shapes and Colors ?

A:

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).


Q:

What upsides to have mirror touch and downsides to have mirror touch ?

A:

Being a brain doctor with mirror touch means that I’m more likely share a deeper connection with my patients, their suffering, and their care. It also has allowed me to experience some beautiful moments in seeing people come together, and physically feeling it vicariously. In my personal life, this is where some of the downsides may really come up where I can sometimes lose myself in the mirrored sensations of someone else, no matter how dark those experiences may be. The more time I spend with a person and the more willing I am to engage in the mirrored sensations, the more it’s as if my mental body map extends to include the other person. So, when they’re gone, it’s like a limb has gone missing. And having to separate myself from them, even when it’s desperately needed, can be incredibly painful -- almost like an amputation.


Q:

Who Is your favorite singer to listen to ?

A:

I really enjoy Adele, but really any singer who has really worked hard to train their voice can create a degree of resonance that is nice and sharp and often runs right across my maxillary bones in my face like a sharp line or wire being pressed against it.


Q:

What was weaker subject in school?

A:

Arithmetic! 2 + 2 does not equal 4 when 2 + 2 is two red, feminine, maternal numbers hanging out together.


Q:

What parts of Mirror touch make you more creative than other types of synesthesia or people who do not have Synesthesia ?

A:

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.


Q:

What best Synesthesia experience you ever had ?

A:

I've had many, but one of the experiences I had that was really fascinating was when I was being studied by VS Ramachandran where he overlaid the number 2 and a the letter W so that they sat and an intersection of each other. For me, 2 is red and W is green. Though, the point of intersection was this very bizarre experience... Sometimes it was red, sometimes it was green and sometimes it was neither and both at the same time. It was like staring at an abyss of paradoxes. From a neuroscientific standpoint, this has a lot to do with prediction coding. For example, in this image, when I focus my attention on the C and the T, the middle letter is red, as in my letter A. When I focus on the T and the E, the middle letter is cobalt, as in my letter E. In other words, my brain is "predicting" what the middle symbol is based off of the context and my past experiences (including my synesthetic color associations for graphemes).


Q:

Can you see time do you SSS or not ?

A:

I do have spatial-sequence synesthesia! For example, October is in front of my chest, while December is a little bit lower. May is typically behind my head and January is up and toward the left just slightly out of my field of vision.


Q:

I was curious what your thoughts on existentialism were?

I've noticed there is a proclivity among synesthetes for mysticism. I have too many forms of syn to count, and so everything ever is just bursting with meaning and association.

However, at the end of the day, I'm inclined to lean on the neuroscience behind synesthesia (and mirror touch). I know that just because I "feel" it doesn't necessarily mean it's there (metaphysically).

For the most part, I'm content with the significance I give to things (internally generated meaning), vs. from something beyond us (externally generated meaning)--that I think it's worthy on its own.

However, I think existential issues are pretty hard for people anyway... and maybe even harder to have with such an (outrageously) vivid internal sensory experience. For me, it often feels like two dualing dragons (mysticism and scientific explanation).

For example, stripped of even (a small) amount of sensitivity to sense info, I actually start to feel quite distressed. When I was hypothyroid and severely migrainal, I remember feeling less like people were "there" simply because I couldn't see them (or think of them well enough) to feel them heavily on my own body map (mirror touch response).

All this time I was carrying around a landscape of people on my body that suddenly died down quite a bit, and I realized how much that made me feel like spirits, or benign forces were with me (and that I wanted them to stay--real or not).

I think the feeling of somehow being interconnected is important to me, and a little bit disturbing if all human consciousness is truly separate. I often "feel" like it's not--yet know it probably is.

It seems a lot of other mirror touch synesthetes feel interconnected with "the universe" and other people/things simply because they feel everything on their bodies--and this feels intrinsically mystical.

A:

I can relate with the feeling of everything bursting with meaning and association - much like a Google DeepDream. I also agree with you on how just amazing these experiences are at face value and how miraculous they are through the lens of science as well as the lens of just being a human in the world. Your image of the dueling dragons reminds me of a caduceus actually, which is a symbol associated with both for commerce/exchange and (incorrectly) health/medicine. Of relevance, the symbolism reminds me of the contrast between art and science, or the balance between being a scientist and just being a human. I think the feeling of interconnectedness can serve an important purpose, such as a feeling of greater meaning which can in turn provide a sense of calm and ease in your life. Regardless of who that sense of purpose is derived (whether more science, or more mysticism or spirituality) becomes less relevant as the feeling still serves its purpose. I think whether the sense of separateness or togetherness creates a sense of distress is something that is a personal one that needs to be thought through. That is, each of us has our own relationship to where we want to be most between being really far away and really close to other people. This can on the situation and can change from moment-to-moment, but can also relate to past experiences and accumulating present experiences which will dictate how you perceive that relationship in the future. Now, the physical feeling that is typically ascribed to a spiritual experience is something that can occur during a religious moment just as it can occur while watching a beautiful sunset or while watching the end of Kimi no Na Wa. Wherever it comes from and whatever you ascribe it to, it’s still pretty awesome.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

Might be a bit late to the party but here goes:

How has your condition affected your sexual orientation?

A:

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.