Michelle Peck was programming a robotic arm at Seattle University when she felt it. As the device moved, there was a quickening in her own corresponding limb. It suddenly felt more deliberate and choppier, like the machine. There were sensations in her shoulder, elbow, index finger and thumb. She was compelled to imitate it.
The 22-year-old electrical and computer engineering student has mirror-touch, empathic synesthesia so pronounced it extends to the mechanical. In this accelerated technological age, perhaps this is a sign of great human adaptation, or even evolution.
“In watching it move I could feel the movement in my own arm," the young woman set to graduate in May explained. "The movement of the robotic arm feels rather 'choppy' to me – in other words, it doesn't move in a smooth motion as natural limbs do. Since the arm moves slowly, I feel as though the reflexes in my own arm have slowed down. When the base of the arm rotates, I feel my shoulder rotate in what would in reality be a rather unnatural position. Any joint on the robot that mirrors a joint on my actual arm I can feel move, though when the 'fingers' of the arm pick up a block of wood I've programmed it to, it feels to me like I am only using my index finger and my thumb to pick up the block. I also feel the texture of the wood on the block, and how light it is as it is lifted. You can hear the robot arm makes a sort of squeaking sound as it moves, and to me that sound feels almost like joints grinding; it's not a painful feeling, but it can feel uncomfortable hearing it after a while.'' Here is a video of the robotic arm.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the neurons in this type of synesthesia “are a class of neuron that modulate their activity both when an individual executes a specific motor act and when they observe the same or similar act performed by another individual.”
"Mirror-touch" neurons, as they are known, are found in the premotor cortex – that part of the brain which plans future action. They were first observed by three researchers in macaque monkeys in Italy in 1992. In brain scans of the primates, not only did they become active when the monkeys performed tasks, but also when they observed other monkeys doing so.
In general, her experiences feel like phantom sensations, she says. "For instance, if I am in a car, sometimes my mind will wander to the shape of the car, and I feel myself begin to associate the wheels of the car with my limbs; in that case it's like I can feel asphalt on my hands or arms like the tires of the car would.’’
Dr. Richard Cytowic, neuroscientist and author and one of the fathers of modern synesthesia research explains the process. "Can inanimate objects that move – and here I’m thinking of the Bewegung (movement) that so interested the Bauhaus movement – induce a feeling state in susceptible synesthetes? Probably. Yes. Just as emotionally mediated synesthesia that produces colored auras around people and objects is a function of the perceiver and not the object, so too mirror touch has more to do with the viewer than the viewed. The superordinate concept in psychology is that of 'projection.' "
I have been documenting rare cases of this type of synesthesia for the past several years and have termed them, "machine synesthesia" and the people who experience it "machine synesthetes" or "machine empaths."
Michelle says she has felt these sensations for as long as she can remember. “When I was little, I enjoyed watching garbage trucks pick up trash bins, and to me it felt like the arm that picked up the trash bins was an extra limb that was attached to my side (as it was attached on the side of a garbage truck). More or less, it's like my mind is associating my body with another 'body' that I see, and this can also translate to actions that happen to or by other people or even animals. With machines, it's as though my mind is trying to 'create' a body it can empathize with out of the machine or inanimate object I see. Overall it's not something I can stop from happening, but when I catch it happening I can usually get my mind to focus on something else if I do not wish to feel what I see happening in front of me (for instance, if I am watching a violent movie and do not wish to feel phantom pain that the characters on screen may be feeling).”
Since she is an electrical and computer engineer, much of what she does doesn’t trigger the empathy sensation. In this way, the work she loves is a sanctuary, she says. “I typically will build circuits or write code for my projects, and more often than not there is nothing physical happening/no moving parts I can see."
Working on robots as well as repairing things as a part-time mechanical assistant for small on-campus repair jobs, however, brings the ability to full bore. “I do mostly plumbing there, and having become very acquainted with the way various systems are supposed to work (such as sinks or toilets), my mind can sometimes catch when something feels ‘off’ with a system before I myself realize it. However, I feel in this case it mostly has to do with subtle changes in sound; for instance, a toilet that is experiencing low water pressure when flushed, even if slight, feels to me like labored breathing even though all I do is hear that the flush is taking somewhat longer than normal. I suppose somebody without synesthesia might notice that a toilet takes longer to flush than normal just by the way it sounds, but as long as it flushes most people do not have a problem with it. But when I hear it, the phantom feeling associated with the sound and slow movement does get to me, and so I tend to try to diagnose the water pressure issue with the toilet before it worsens. The same idea goes for sinks that drain slowly. When I see a sink that won't drain, I feel as if my throat is tight when my mind empathizes with the sink.”
There aren't any long-term physical effects from what she feels, though sometimes it does get uncomfortable. “All the sensations I experience when I empathize with an object are mild to moderate in intensity, and are of course phantom sensations (so in other words, while I feel something there, there is nothing actually creating any physical change where I feel the sensations).’’
The young woman's other forms of synesthesia include sound-color, sound-shape, smell-color, taste-color, number and letter personification, spatial synesthesia in which she associates the progression of time in blocks going left to right,, numbers and letters associated with fixed colors, sound-texture synesthesia, and personality-color synesthesia (where her mind tends to associate people with certain, usually fixed, colors).
Michelle says she was aware of some of these other forms of synesthesia since she was a small girl. “I had a general idea that I had the sound-color synesthesia since I was young, but never really paid attention to it until I took cello lessons at age 10 and my teacher asked if I associated sounds with colors (as she did, too). It was then I realized I could tell my cello-playing was in tune based on if the color I heard was correct, and my teacher said it was a form of perfect pitch. I don't usually say I have perfect pitch anymore, because as I grew up I began to second-guess the colors I heard, which I suppose is due to the lack of confidence developed as an adult. Even before that, when I learned to read and write, I always had colors associated with each number and letter of the alphabet; sometimes I wonder if that is because of learning charts my teachers used, and so the first letters I read on an alphabet were colored and perhaps that's how my mind remembers it.’’
She found out what synesthesia is when the term was first mentioned in one of her high school English classes. “We learned about the use of synesthesia in writing, and it was then that I found out my experiences with associating sounds, smells, and tastes with color were fairly unusual among the general population of people. I remember one day after learning about it, I went home and looked up synesthesia on the Internet and found out about all the other forms I related to. At that point I became more aware of my experiences and began asking people about it because it felt unusual that these experiences that seemed so normal to me were not necessarily felt by the grand majority of people. When I told people in high school, most would become briefly fascinated and ask me things like, ‘What color is my voice? What color is the letter 'A'? ...’’
In college she joined the school choir, and her director was a synesthete as well.
“When working on unifying sounds she would sometimes tell us to make the phrase ‘bright red’ or ‘darker green’. I wasn't sure if she knew that others who might have the same form of synesthesia wouldn't hear ‘bright red’ sounds the same way she did, so I told her that and she was pleased to have found a student who associated sound and color like she did. Later on in rehearsals she would usually call on me to describe the color of the group after we would sing a phrase.’’
Since synesthesia runs in families, she remembers asking various family members if they had certain forms of synesthesia. “I told my mom about the kinds I had, and she said she couldn't relate but that she knew I tended to be extremely empathetic toward other people's emotions and thought there was a connection there. When I asked my oldest sister, she told me she associates letters and numbers with personalities. My middle sister doesn't think she has any form of synesthesia, though I'm not entirely sure if that's true.’’
What does Michelle think her experiences mean in terms of the Singularity – the theorized point at which technology matches human potential? Thought leaders in that realm measure the leaps machines like computers and robots are making toward human-level intelligence. Her very provocative testimony seems to indicate that the Singularity may be a two-way street.
“I think in a way our bodies are adapting to an environment full of technology,” Michelle explains. “The way I see this is how humans have fine motor skills not seen in most other species, and while I do not know enough about anthropology and how evolution works exactly aside from natural selection, we have definitely evolved in a way that allows us to use tools like pencils in such a precise manner using these fine motor skills--something that had to have been developed over time in the brain. And perhaps the same concept is indeed happening with newer technology where the brain is adapting to newer tools and machines, hence what these new, odd psychological experiences are with machine empathy.
She points out that mirror-touch synesthesia also includes empathy with other humans, so it could simply mean our brain is adapting to how it perceives the environment as a whole, rather than to just machines or inanimate objects. "However, one way empathy could be interpreted is that our brains are developing a new way to receive information about our environment, and so in this way we are able to pick up more information on machines with machine empathy and thus create further progress in technology with the information that our brains pick up. "
Michelle supposes over time she's learned to ignore the sensations she gets when watching a machine, "so I don't tend to mirror the machine's movements with my own. I do find, however, if I decide to mimic the machine's movements, I can very accurately do so thanks to the sensations I feel when watching the arm move."
Craig Weinberg, a cloud administrator and well-regarded blogger on consciousness and technology (https://multisenserealism.com/ and http://s33light.org/) finds the young woman a harbinger of days to come.
“A few years ago, I had an epiphany that the future of technology was going to be simultaneously projecting ourselves outward (social media) and bringing technology inward (off-loading cognitive tasks and becoming more integrated with tech). This would go along with the second part, breaking down or expanding the boundaries of the personal to include what was formerly impersonal.’’
MIT-affiliated anthropologist William C. Bushell, Ph.D., points out that people throughout time have related to the inanimate—so why not machines?
"Myths about early blacksmiths from all over the world describe special sensory, 'empathic' relationships between these smiths and the materials with which they work, and such phenomena are still reported by some blacksmiths today." Dr. Bushell says. He recently discovered evidence for this in his interviews with Ukrainian smiths now living in Brooklyn who have access to centuries-old, unbroken lineages of oral teaching on the art and science of smithing and is collaborating on further research with Dr. Shirin Kaboli, a McGill University-trained materials scientist who is currently an Assistant Research Professor at the High Pressure Science and Engineering Center and the Department of Geoscience at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Dr. Bushell is Co-Director of the new free access online database/information center/archive known as ISHAR (Integrative Studies Historical Archive and Repository, isharonline.org), which aims to become the largest digital repository of consciousness studies, including integrative health.
“These Ukrainian blacksmiths, such as Sergij Polubotko, are very knowledgeable on multiple levels, of the deep, historical connections of their craft to the emergence of what we call ‘civilization’ – which has been built of materials smiths, masons, and other such craftspeople have developed and worked with for millennia: metals, minerals, stone," Dr. Bushell explained. "When an enlightened neuroscience is applied to exploring the inner processes of these artists – present and we can surmise past – we see that they develop high levels of what in the field of cognitive-behavioral science is defined as attentional ‘absorption.’ Such attentional absorption can take the form of a 'laser-like' concentrated focus which enables highly detailed visual work to be done, or it may take the form of a more holistic, 'global' mode, involving a fuller engagement of the whole inner body schema, including visceral, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and haptic centers of the nervous system, involving activation of mirror neurons. And some form of this latter seems to be the way that such machine empaths are relating on multiple levels to the machines with which they identify...”
Michelle’s “machine synesthesia” is the fourth such case I have encountered – all millennial women. Dr. Bushell believes that generation's deep involvement with technology from an early age is contributing to their state of absorption and resulting empathic feelings toward modern tools.
One of the world's leading experts on empaths, Dr. Judith Orloff, believes Michelle is incredibly interesting and may benefit from some techniques to manage these sensations.
"This is a fascinating case of mirror-touch synesthesia where the subject can feel in her body what is happening in the robotic arm and other outside sources of technology. From my work with people who are high up on the empathic spectrum, I know mirror-touch synesthesia is one way that extreme empathy operates. The subject needs to learn adequate strategies to deal with getting overwhelmed by these sensations and stay grounded in her body. Meditation and deep breathing can be very helpful as is learning to practice a shielding visualization to filter out outside sensations when they are unwanted." Dr. Orloff has a new book with such strategies, The Empath's Survival Guide, coming out next month.
And the 2016 Presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, Zoltan Istvan, believes what Michelle experiences naturally may be achieved through technology one day. His party is an American political
organization dedicated to putting science, health, and technology at the
forefront of United States politics.
“The concept of synesthesia in humans being applied to machines and even the computer chip is not just a concept for a few special people on Earth, but might well be the future for all of us,” he explained. “Implants or brain wave headsets will allow all of us to replicate what these people feel when they emphathize with things seemingly outside themselves. At the very core of transhumanism is the ability to transcend what we think is normal human behavior. So syncing ourselves to new and different ways to exist and think is a critical part of the transhumanist agenda.
“At some point in the far future – surely in the Singularity – our consciousness will be in tune with far more machine, data, and computational ability," he said. "We will not just be ourselves, but hive minds interconnected with multiple entities – both living and nonliving – feeling and knowing everything that transpires.”
Top neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, now at Stanford, recently developed a vest covered in vibratory motors – allowing anyone to feel high-dimensional data in real time – going a long way toward the omniscience Zoltan Istvan describes.
"As we increasingly marry our biology to our technology, everyone will have the opportunity to experience the feeling of machines, of weather data, of Twitter data, of factories, of airplanes, and so on," Dr. Eagleman told me. "There's a sense in which we will all be synesthetes."
The other cases I have documented follow:
Catherine Johnston, Tasmania, Australia:
Vanessa Ki, Melbourne, Australia: