Machine empathy

Also called machine synesthesia or mirror touch with machines

These terms are used to refer to synesthetes who experience mirror touch on observing actions affecting not only other people but also machines, vehicles or other inanimate objects. This means that when they see the inanimate object in question being hit, crushed, falling, etc. they get a sensation in their own body reflecting what the object might be feeling if it had the capacity to do so.

It doesn’t appear to be a very common phenomenon but it might perhaps occur with a certain frequency among mirror touch synesthetes, as they often report feeling mirrored sensations in their own bodies not just on observing other people but also when they watch animals, avatars, cartoon characters, etc.

The best-known case is that of American synesthete Michelle Peck. There is an article about her, written by Maureen Seaberg here.

At the end of the article there are links to other cases reported by the same writer.

Michelle has other types of synesthesia including mirror touch, and in fact she considers her machine empathy an extension of it. For example, one of the sensations she describes has to do with a robotic arm she was manipulating in her work as an electrical engineer, an element designed precisely to resemble a part of the human body. Here are some other experiences she describes:

"If I am in a car, sometimes my mind will wander to the shape of the car, and I feel myself begin to associate the wheels of the car with my limbs; in that case it's like I can feel asphalt on my hands or arms like the tires of the car would.’’

“When I was little, I enjoyed watching garbage trucks pick up trash bins, and to me it felt like the arm that picked up the trash bins was an extra limb that was attached to my side.”

She goes on to say that when she is doing plumbing work and encounters a toilet with low water pressure she feels breathless, or that her throat seems to tighten if she sees a sink that won’t drain.

Another "machine synesthete", Catherine Johnston, says:

“Looking around the room now - there is a heater with a moving part. (…) If I look at it, I mirror its movements. There is a flap going up and down. I am really focusing on it right now and I can feel my head tilting forwards and back.”

The article about Catherine is here.

Joel Salinas, the "doctor who can feel your pain", also talks about his reactions to inanimate objects in his book Mirror Touch, noting that they are stronger the more human-like the inanimate object is:

"When looking at the Statue of Liberty, I feel the heavy cloth draped across the dorsa of my feet, the sensation of holding weight in the crux of my right arm and hand, the tension of my left triceps and shoulder as if I were, like Lady Liberty, extending my arm upward. The pointed array of horns emerges from my scalp just before the midcoronal plane. I am their living mirror.
A handbell elongates my upper body while my lower body becomes frictionless and spacious. Lampposts stretch me upward with my head positioned high up top. Electrical outlets, with their mousey look of surprise reflected on my own face, make me feel friendly and mischievous."

(Joel Salinas, Mirror Touch. A Memoir of Synesthesia and the Secret Life of the Brain. Pub. Harper One, 2017. p7.)

Go to the page on mirror touch synesthesia

Go to the page on pain empathy (vicarious pain or indirect pain)

This page last updated: 13 June 2021

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