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What is Mirror-Touch Synesthesia?

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson describes a neurological condition known as mirror-touch synesthesia, a rare disorder that results in a person feeling the pain or touch that they see another person experience (like looking in the mirror)!

What is Mirror-Touch Synesthesia?

Imagine you're with a friend and she falls and twists her ankle. All of a sudden, you feel the pain in your own ankle. Or, you see someone touching their own face and you feel the sensation on your cheek. These are symptoms of a rare neurological condition known as mirror-touch synesthesia.

A cat sees its reflection in a mirror
Cat sees reflection in mirror

The word synesthesia derives from Greek and means 'joined perception.' People with synesthesia often experience perceiving something through more than one sense. For example, people might see a certain color, such as blue, and then smell something distinct, like flowers. Or, let's say you see you always see the color green when you're thinking about the number five. This is the most common type of synesthesia, but it can take many different forms. Let's talk specifically about mirror-touch synesthesia.

People with synesthesia might associate certain numbers and letters with certain colors
People with synesthesia might associate certain numbers and letters with certain colors

Mirror-touch synesthesia is a particular form that involves feeling the sensations other people feel, as if something were happening to you. It's sort of like looking in a mirror! Researchers are not exactly sure what causes mirror-touch synesthesia. But, there are few explanations that we'll discuss in this lesson.

Mirror Neurons

Scientists believe that mirror-touch synesthesia is related to cells located in our brain called neurons. Neurons are cells that transmit electrical signals throughout our body to help our brain and spinal cord communicate with the rest of us.

The neurons we're talking about here are found in an area of the brain called the premotor cortex, which is the part of your brain that is responsible for planning future action. So, if you're about to reach out and grab something, this part of your brain is activated.

While observing the actions of monkeys, scientists discovered something curious: in some monkeys, these cells were activated both when a monkey reached out and grasped something and also when that monkey observed another reaching out to grab something. Because of this mirror-like action, scientists termed these cells 'mirror neurons'.

Mirror-touch Synesthesia and the Brain

Other research has suggested that synesthesia might be the result of 'cross-wires' in our brain. In other words, neural circuits that are meant to be separate might cross over onto one another. So, for example, the bundle of neurons that are meant to be contained within our sight sensory system might end up crossed over into our touch sensory system.

Researchers are not entirely sure what explains this. However, some believe that we are all born with some of our circuits crossed, but for most of us they eventually uncross.

Scientists are not entirely sure which parts of the brain are involved in synesthesia, but some believe that the limbic system plays an important role. The limbic system is responsible for regulating emotions and memory. Scientists believe that one emotion in particular might be involved in mirror-touch synesthesia: empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling.

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