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Mirror touch synesthesia

Mirror touch is considered a type of synesthesia, even though it does not strictly meet all the requirements for being one. It can be defined as the conscious experience of tactile sensations being triggered by seeing other people receive physical contact, when these sensations are perceived in the same part of the body as that of the person observed. It is this specific location of the physical sensations that differentiates mirror touch from pain empathy (indirect or vicarious pain), which is not necessarily perceived in the same part of the body as the one being observed.


Some examples of mirror touch: seeing someone stroke another person’s face and feeling a touch sensation on your own face at the same time; seeing a headbutt in a video and feeling a sudden, strong, unpleasant sensation of pain in your own forehead; seeing a runner fall over in a race and feeling friction and pain in your knees, which is the part of the runner’s body that hit the ground; or seeing someone stabbed in the chest in a violent film and feeling a pain in exactly the same place in your own chest. The mirror sensation can be strong although obviously (and fortunately!) it lacks the full intensity of the original sensation observed, especially in the case of violent contact and serious accidents, and the different sensations might be for example a "zap" or “shock” feeling (similar to the typical pain empathy sensation), localised tingling, or the feeling of a pinprick, friction or a cut on the skin, always in the same part of the body as the one being observed and normally lasting for a few seconds or while the action is being observed.


Mirror touch is involuntary, automatic, immediate and logically it tends to be unpleasant, as it most often reflects either pain from accidental or deliberate blows and other bodily aggressions, or touches and caresses that are not necessarily desired by the observer. However, most people who have it lead a normal life as the condition is fairly mild and not too invasive, or because they have learnt to deal with it by looking away whenever they anticipate that some contact will be made or a person is about to be hit, fall down, etc. Naturally it makes it very difficult for them to watch violent films or videos with excessive physical contact, the popular “fail” compilations and some types of sport.


Mirror touch has been related to the “mirror neurons” or “empathy neurons”, located in the premotor cortex of the brain and whose function is to reflect the activity being carried out by other people. Discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti in 1996, mirror neurons are probably involved in mirror touch, pain empathy and mirror kinetics, although their mechanisms are not yet fully known. You can read more about mirror neurons in this article.


Mirror touch is mainly experienced in response to actions involving other human beings, but it can be felt with cartoon characters and some people also experience it in response to tactile actions involving animals, robots or even machines and other objects (read about the machine type on this page).


What makes mirror touch similar to and different from synesthesia

Similarities:

There is an inducer and a concurrent. It could be considered a type of visual-tactile synesthesia, as the physical contact that triggers the mirror sensation has to be physically seen: it is not evoked by thinking, intuitively sensing, remembering or reading about it.

It is automatic, involuntary and consistent.

People who have it report having had it for their whole life, from a very early age or as long as they remember.

It affects a small percentage of the population (around 1.5% - 2% has been estimated, although it appears that a fair proportion of these people do not show any other manifestations of synesthesia, and if this is the case it suggests that may actually be another kind of phenomenon).

Differences:

It is not idiosyncratic: in synesthesia the concurrents triggered by the same stimulus differ substantially for each person, so for example if two sound-to-colour synesthetes hear an identical sound a blue colour might be produced for one synesthete and yellow for the other, while in mirror touch everyone has the same reaction.

It is not basically a pleasant phenomenon. Few examples can be found (although they exist) of having mirror touch and enjoying it as something positive. This enjoyable nature is a basic characteristic of synesthesia and is almost always the case.


Here are some descriptions written by people with mirror touch:

 

“I know that when I see someone being tapped on the shoulder, for example, I will feel a faint lingering feeling on my shoulder as well, almost as if a ghost touched it. But I assumed that was just because I know what being tapped on the shoulder feels like, and my brain just processed that information that way. If I see someone being slapped in the face, I will "feel" (it’s more like the association of a feeling rather) a slight tingling on my face, but again, I've been slapped before, so I assumed my feelings were "out of sympathy" per se.

(Source: This post on the online debate platform  Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)


One of the weirdest ones I remember was when I was a little kid, I was watching a movie where two characters kissed and I felt a kissing sensation on my lips. Having never been kissed on the lips before, it was a strange feeling to say the least.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform  Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

 

At a congress (a synesthesia congress!) an acupuncture session was projected to illustrate part of a talk. I started feeling strong pinpricks all over my body and I felt really annoyed that someone could think it was a good idea to show something like that at an event where there probably a good few people with mirror touch in the audience!"

(Source: Pau 365, my own experience)

 

I’d like to tell you about another of my own experiences, which I think is interesting as it shows two things: 1. that in mirror touch the visual aspect is necessary to be able to feel the mirrored sensation, which could point to it being a visual-tactile type of synesthesia, and 2. that although mirror touch tends to be rather unpleasant, it can occasionally be quite the opposite.


“When I used to go to the swimming pool in summer I would walk by a court where these guys were always playing paddleball, and I realised that when I watched them, as I saw them hit the ball with their racquets I would get this really pleasant feeling in hand and down my arm, as if I was hitting the ball myself, but without making any effort. There was one left-handed player and it worked better with him, as I would preferably use a racquet with my left hand. I enjoyed it so much that every morning as I went past I would stand and watch him for a while enjoying this fabulous sensation, although I had to clear off after a few days in case he thought there was something odd about me staring at him like that or thought I fancied him or something. The curious thing about it was that I was watching the contact between the racquet and the ball to get this sensation, but if the racquet happened to go behind a tree or post from my perspective at the moment of contact, I didn’t feel anything in my hand and arm. I knew he was about to hit the ball and I was expecting it, but if I didn’t actually see it visually I didn’t feel it. Which is funny because you might think that the brain is anticipating the moment of contact and you would feel it anyway, but if you don’t actually see it happen, you don’t. And I think that illustrates quite well what mirror-touch consists of.”

(Source: Pau 365, my own experience)


The neurologist and doctor Joel Salinas has a particularly vivid and often overwhelming expression of this phenomenon. In this quote from his book Mirror Touch, he details how he experiences a stronger effect the closer or more similar he feels to what he is observing, and how it is also enhanced by factors such as attention or caffeine: 

“My experience is heightened the more similar whatever it is I’m observing is to me. My mirror-touch sensations are closest to actual physical touch when I observe someone who shares similar characteristics with me, which is followed in slightly diminished intensity by observing someone who does not look like me. I experience mirror touch sensations at decreasing levels of vividness when triggered by objects that appear human, like a mannequin, followed in decreasing intensity by objects that look humanoid, like an electrical outlet, which is tied to the common experience of pareidolia. Objects that have no clear resemblance to a person at all, like a glass of water, are the least intense, though I still experience them occasionally. Meanwhile, new experiences and unexpected experiences are heightened, like sudden surprise or shock or, more simply, when I’m caught off guard. Increased emotional significance, or salience, has a similar effect, such as when I see something I have strong emotional ties to, an experience not unlike I imagine victims of trauma go through. Attention also affects vividness. The more I attend to the mirror-touch experience, the more real it is. Conversely, the less I attend to it, the less vivid it is, though I am never really able to extinguish it completely. In this same vein, if I were to drink caffeine (greater activation) or drink alcohol or become sleep deprived (less inhibition) the experiences can become even more vivid because of the increased activity in the brain.”

(Joel Salinas, Mirror Touch. A Memoir of Synesthesia and the Secret Life of the Brain. Pub. Harper One, 2017. p100-101.)


Some links:

- The book Mirror Touchby Dr. Joel Salinas, the "doctor who feels his patients’ pain”.

An article on mirror touch by London University researcher Michael Banissy, who has been studying mirror-sensory synaesthesia for over a decade in collaboration with Jamie Ward.

An article by Lindsay Dodgson in the online magazine Business Insider.


Studies:

- “Mirror-sensory synaesthesia: Exploring ‘shared’ sensory experiences as synaesthesia” (B. M. Fitzgibbon et al, University of Monash, Australia, 2013): a very complete study on mirror touch as a type of synesthesia.

- “Why vicarious experience is not an instance of synesthesia” (N. Rothen and B. Meier, University of Sussex, 2013): a study explaining why experiences of this type do not fit in with the definition of synesthesia.


Phenomena related to mirror touch:


Pain empathy (indirect or vicarious pain): the sensation of pain in a certain part of the body on observing, remembering or thinking about pain in other people, but not in the same part of the body as the one being observed.


Machine empathy: mirror touch sensations on observing machines or inanimate objects.


Mirror speech: when hearing somebody speak causes the sensation that your own mouth and throat are producing the same sounds.


It has also been reported that some people taste food they see other people putting into their mouths (they don’t taste it by just seeing it on the plate, only on actually observing the other person eating it). This could be another related phenomenon.


Some people with strong empathy can have physical sensations in their own body when they feel that another person has a disease, a painful condition, etc. It is something highly intuitive and they often feel their mirror sensation (pain, discomfort, tension, etc.) in the same part of the body as that of the person affected, even before they consciously realise that there is something wrong with the person they have in front of them. These individuals excel at a number of professions involving people and they can be excellent massage professionals, for example, as they can easily sense where the tension in the patient’s body is located and feel the process of relieving it in their own bodies as they work, which guides them.


Emotion-tactile synesthesia: a rare type of synesthesia where emotions evoke tactile sensations in the body. If it occurs on observing other people or intuitively sensing their emotions it could perhaps be considered related to mirror touch synesthesia.


Any or all of these phenomena can exist together in the same individuals who have mirror touch synesthesia.


Note: "Mirror touch" can be written with or without a hyphen, so both mirror touch and mirror-touch are correct. Sometimes the hyphenated version is used only as an adjective ("mirror-touch sensations", etc.) but the hyphenated version is also commonly found as a noun.


This page last updated: 14 June 2021


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