Reflecting on Mirror-Touch

I had an engaging conversation with Dr. Joel Salinas in November 2015 as he was diligently working on his lovely memoir Mirror Touch: Notes from a doctor who can feel your pain. We dialogued about the many facets of Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia and how we both recognize the impacts of MTS on our respective careers in healthcare. Joel is a practicing neurologist and researcher; I am a corrective soft-tissue therapist. Joel is the first person I’d ever conversed with who has MTS, and it was both reassuring and rather fascinating to learn how much our experiences overlap, and how they differ.

I’m an outlier in that I didn’t learn the term “synaesthesia” until I was in my early 40’s. I knew there was something a little different about my sensorium, and (almost 20 years ago) I did try to get some insight into my mirror-sensory pain. But that stream of inquiry with a physician who is a friend, while compassionate, went nowhere. A decade later when a massage client told me that there was a word for blended sensations (synaesthesia) and that there were multiple forms, I began delving into the interwebs for information on the synaesthetic experience.

It didn’t take long to find scientific research on mirror-touch phenomena; however, most of these descriptions of mirror-touch experiences didn’t (at first) seem like a match for me. For example, in the paper Explaining Mirror Touch Synesthesia by Michael Banissy and Jamie Ward (Cognitive Neuroscience 2015;6(2-3):118-33. doi: 10.1080/17588928.2015.1042444. Epub 2015 May 13) MTS is noted as the “conscious experience of tactile sensations induced by seeing someone else touched”. This description doesn’t include my most flagrant mirror-sensorial perception, which is pain shooting down my legs when I see other people’s wounds and injuries. But, also I tend to be quite literal in my thinking, and my mirror-touch sensations are greatest not when I see someone get touched by another person, but when I see inanimate objects brush against them.

I also failed to originally note my own very typical MTS because of the difference between exteroceptive sensation and proprioceptive sensation. I assumed that MTS phenomena….the conscious experience of tactile sensations induced by seeing someone else touched….should feel proprioceptive, that I should feel the sensation of pressure and firm contact. But, what I feel when I see another person get touched is exteroceptive…a gentle perception that tickles my skin. I do indeed feel exteroceptive perceptions when I see another person get touched; I also have Mirror-Touch exteroceptive sensations when I see another person get bumped or jostled. But, if the contact becomes more aggressive…for example, if I witness a person get body-slammed, then I don’t feel that ticklish exteroceptive sensation. Instead, I will feel what I call synaesthesia-for-pain (after the research of Bernadette Fitzgibbons and Melita Giummarra). That sensation, which feels like bolts of electricity coursing down the back of my legs, is my most flagrant mirror-sensory experience, and the aspect of my sensorium that launched me on a quest for understanding.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had two interviews with the BBC regarding Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia. In both dialogues, I pointed the reporter to the video for the song “Wonderful Life” by the musical artist Colin Vearncombe, who, in the 1980’s, went by the name “Black”.  I get so much lovely mirror-proprioceptive feedback from the imagery in this video. The acrobat makes me feel like I am in the air turning and twisting, the boy who swings around the lifebuoy makes me feel like I am swinging around too, my legs flying in the air, my hands friction burned by the metal pole. But, there’s a more subtle image that that tickles my skin and gives me the exteroceptive mirror-sensory experience that I’ve long known, but didn’t realize is the epitome of MTS. At 1:35 minutes into the video, there is a woman sitting next to an elderly man.  Strands of her long wavy hair are fluttering in the wind and brushing against her cheek. In the video, her hair is dangling on the right side of her face, yet I feel it on my left cheek, and on the left side of my head, as if I am looking into a mirror.

I’m delighted to see Mirror-Touch getting some traction in the synaesthesia research community, as I believe MTS can reveal much about human empathy. And, I’m over the moon that the upcoming IASAS Synaesthesia Symposium will host Dr. Joel Salinas, MD as our keynote speaker, and Michael Banissy, PhD as our keynote lecturer. While the IASAS symposium isn’t specifically focused on MTS, I think there will be plenty of reflecting on the “mirror” at UCLA in October 2017.