This post is also available in Dutch.
Have you ever wished for superpowers like flying, supernatural strength or senses? Some people actually do have an incredible ability to sense; they experience other people’s sensations as their own.
Literally feeling others’ pain
Picture the following: You fall off your bike. Nothing too serious, you just have a bit of a tingling sensation on your elbow. A passerby who has seen the unfortunate event rushes to help you. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, but then things start to get bizarre: the kind stranger can also feel a tingling sensation on their elbow.
This is not the plot of a sci-fi movie but is a reality for a small proportion (less than 2%) of people. These people, called mirror-touch synaesthetes (MTS), perceive visual-tactile sensations on another person’s body as their own. Synaesthesia, which is the name for the broader phenomenon, comes from Greek and means “a union of senses”. This is when distinct senses (hearing and seeing, hearing and taste, and so on) become blended. So some people can hear colors and some, taste sounds. In the case of MST, visual sensations evoke the tactile ones so strongly that the person can literally feel what they see.
Inside the brain of synaesthetes
To some extent, all people can simulate the actions of others that they observe. When an action is observed, a proportion of the brain’s sensorimotor (sensation and motion) areas become active. When you see someone touch their cheek, your brain also internalizes the action as if you were touching your own cheek. This happens because of mirror neurons. First discovered in monkeys, mirror neurons become active when an action is performed as well as when it is passively observed. In the case of humans, mirroring is typically under control — other brain signals allow us to distinguish between what happens to us versus to others. Most people do not feel an actual physical sensation when observing someone else (or something else) being touched. But in people with MTS, mirror neurons are hyperactive (above the threshold for conscious tactile perception). However, MTS do not just have overactive neurons; they also have less brain matter in their temporoparietal junction. This brain area is involved in helping to distinguish self and other, which then allows to distinguish between external and internal states.
The greatest superpower of all?
Constantly experiencing the blurring between inside and outside sensations may be overwhelming. At the same time, it comes with an upside: heightened empathy. All people have empathy – the ability to feel other people’s states (emotional, mental, bodily). In plain words, it is the sharing of experiences. People with MTS are especially empathetic. Remember the saying that to understand another person, one has to walk a mile in their shoes? MTS are indeed walking in other people’s shoes. Heightened empathy is not the same as mind reading, of course. But feeling what others feel is beneficial in helping to predict their behavior. This is quite a superpower in a highly unpredictable world.