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Mirror Touch

Harvard-trained Dr. Joel Salinas is a "bird set free" in his brilliant new book

Dr. Joel Salinas by Shandon Youngclaus
Source: Dr. Joel Salinas by Shandon Youngclaus

Dr. Joel Salinas was only one week into his duties as an internal medicine clerk -- and very early in his awakening as a mirror-touch synesthete -- when a code blue got called in the waiting room.

Chaos erupted as a man lay unconscious on the floor. It was Salinas' first emergency and he was doing his best to understand the rapid-fire directives being yelled and assist in any way possible.

"Or I tried," he writes in the introduction to his new book, Mirror Touch (HarperOne). "I was absorbed in the man in cardiac arrest, fully immersed in his bodily experience. The sensations in my body mirrored the sensations in his."

As the team did compressions on the man's chest, Salinas felt them on his own. He is a polysynesthete, or someone with several forms of the trait. One is mirror-touch synesthesia so strong he literally feels others' pain, but he was not yet fully aware of his abilities.

"I felt my own vocal cords tighten as doctors slid a tube down his throat -- a sharp object shoved down the back of my throat..." He felt his body go limp and fade into the linoleum as the man slipped away.

"I was dying, but I was not."

Dr. Salinas made his way to the restroom, crumpled on the floor, and vomited. "I was alive, though it felt as if I had died. I felt it, without a doubt, as sure as I could feel the tears and saliva currently spilling out of me in the bathroom stall."

Courtesy HarperOne
Source: Courtesy HarperOne

So opens the stunning book by the Ivy League physician. He writes with depth and candor and immediacy, as well as a great deal of compassion in the Oliver Sacks tradition. I was granted a preview of it in galley form from the young clinical researcher and neurologist now working a Massachusetts General and his publicist. The book will go a long way toward legitimizing the experiences of mirror-touch synesthetes world-wide. Their sometimes unfathomable abilities to literally feel what others feel have a voice now, and it's Harvard-trained.

There is much to love here. First of all, Dr. Salinas is very open about his awkward childhood as a budding empath and migrant from Nicaragua. He also looks unflinchingly at his own family, socio-economic issues and even his sexuality.

As he discovers his synesthesia, he seeks the insights of some of the top researchers in the land and fellow synesthetes, several of whom you will recognize from this space.

"Learning about synesthesia made me realize everyone experiences irreconcilably different realities, constructed from entirely different base materials," he writes. "Of course, I always knew that we were all individuals, that we were all 'unique.' But uncovering these invisible differences revealed more than simple variations between people."

Late in the book, Dr. Salinas is recovering from his divorce from a man named Jordan, who betrayed him. He makes a modern-day "mix-tape" of songs to help himself heal. As Sia sings the poignant "Bird Set Free," Dr. Salinas describes how it "filled me with bold streaks of lilac and black, shooting upwards across my temples at the chorus, perfumed with the smell of grape cupcake frosting and cigarette smoke."

I found myself pausing there and reflecting on Sia's lyrics about finding one's voice and taking flight. And that is what Dr. Salinas has done here. He found his way through trials apart from not being neuro-typical -- he had a serious illness and a bad car accident along the way. Dr. Salinas even had doubts he'd chosen the right career when his empathy at times overwhelmed him. In the end, he advocates not only for himself but a cast of patients and fellow synesthetes he introduces us to along the way with such deep caring.

I laughed, I cried, and I found myself nodding in recognition of the truth of his synesthetic experiences more than once. I predict this book will be a classic not only in the synesthesia literature, but in all of neuroscience.

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