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Rise of the Machine Empaths

Are humans evolving toward machines?

Catherine Johnston holds the women's world record for memorizing pi, and that's not even the most remarkable thing about her. Catherine can feel machines. And not just feel them -- she is compelled to move as they do.

She was walking down the street one day when a car crash happened next to her. “I thought that I was pushed so hard from the right that I was almost knocked over. I felt it on my side.” The car never hit her but it was as though she were one with the movement of the vehicle.

The 24-year-old violin student and tutor from Tasmania, Australia, is the latest of several synesthetes to share their rare form of mirror-touch synesthesia—profound empathy extending to machines, which I’ve coined “machine synesthesia.” The first was Kaylee, profiled in a story that went viral here two years ago: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sensorium/201311/ghost-in-the-machine. Could these young people be an evolutionary leap toward machines?

Courtesy Catherine Johnston
Source: Courtesy Catherine Johnston

Much is made of how machines will one day match human intelligence and consciousness and technological advances toward that are happening more and more. However, people like Catherine and Kaylee seem to prove that humans are adapting toward a technology-rich environment as well.

Catherine goes on. "OK, so I have uber-extreme synesthesia – pretty much every sort I’ve come across I have in some way or another. A lot is to do with movement.

“Looking around the room now - there is a heater with a moving part. (It is winter in Australia now). If I look at it, I mirror its movements. There is a flap going up and down. I am really focusing on it right now and I can feel my head tilting forwards and back.”

Catherine took a University of California at Santa Barbara online test (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o39TiACe4mw) for motion-to-hearing synesthesia in which many white spheres on a black background move forward and back. Motion-to-hearing synesthetes like myself report sound where there is apparently none. (I hear rushing water).

But in Catherine’s case, she felt the blowing of air and felt physically pulled forward and backward with the ebb and flow of the spheres.

“I don’t generally look at things which are moving too long because it affects me this way. I always glance at such things really quickly, then look away.”

Then there is her violin.

“Ah, I love my violin so much!” she says. “I always feel the wind of the sound blowing on my face in a teal-green breeze. I sense the vibrations of the wood on top of the instrument. I feel the movement and get lost in the sounds. They override so much; I am bombarded by them.”

The young woman also reports profound empathy toward other people – she literally feels the emotional pain of those suffering around her. She feels no associated emotion toward machines, just movement, she says. She attributes this to them not having a soul.

Catherine works as a tutor at the University of Tasmania and holds a teaching degree. She continues to study classical violin. She has memorized pi to 5571 decimal places as well as the square root of 2 to 1001 places, both of which she says are aided by the associated synesthetic colors as well as personalities she has for numbers. They act as a mnemonic, helping her to recall vast amounts of information.

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