Physically Feeling Other People's Pain
A neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital claims he physically feels other people’s pain, as reported the other day by Boston’s local CBS affiliate.
Is this an extraordinary claim? On the surface, it may seem so. There are plenty of examples of medical doctors believing in all sorts of wild, unscientific ideas. But this is not one of those cases.
The condition the neurologist has been diagnosed with is called mirror-touch synesthesia. It is an anomaly in the brain in hyper-empathic people who, for example, sense that they are being touched when they witness someone else being touched. While the majority of people empathize with other people and can imagine what other people are feeling, a mirror-touch synesthete’s brain will mimic those actual feelings at the level of neurons. Mirror-neurons, to be specific.
Steven Novella describes it as such:
” … mirror-touch synesthesia is a product of mirror neurons … Mirror neurons basically reproduce the emotions we witness in others and are thought to be a key neurological component of empathy. Mirror neurons also seem to play a role in mimicking the actions of others – from speech to learned tasks. They are, in short, the neurological substrate of human socialization.
Mirror-touch synesthetes take mirror neurons one step further – they not only emotionally feel the pain of another, they feel the actual pain. This is not surprising, nor does it involve anything supernatural. If a pattern of neurons fire that produce a certain sensation, then you have that sensation, just as if it arose from an external physical stimulus.”
The fact that neurologists have been able to pinpoint how and why this happens in some people is remarkable. At the same time, it must be very disconcerting to the people who live with the condition, especially those who have yet to be diagnosed and are struggling to figure out what might be “wrong” with themselves. Could you imagine yourself going to a horror movie, feeling the pain and agony of the helpless victims in the film, and having no idea why you’re feeling actual pain?
It is believed that as much as 2.5% of the population have experienced mirror-touch synesthesia symptoms.