Bearing Witness to Mirror Touch Synesthesia

Blogger correctly "diagnoses" six teens while speaking at high school

Posted May 10, 2018

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak on synesthesia at New Dorp High School, a public school in New York City, by an award-winning science teacher, Theresa Kutza. Ms. Kutza had learned about my work on the topic when my friend, the librarian at the school, Gloria Medina, shared my book Struck by Genius. 

The students I would be addressing—ninth graders in the school's math and science institute—are gifted and were well-prepared on the topic by their instructor.

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

I began with a general history of synesthesia and worked through its many manifestations—from colorful graphemes (letters and numbers) to Jimi Hendrix and his "purple haze" guitar chord to more subtle things—like how synesthetes seem to be really adept at forming unique metaphors. For the latter I pointed out to the kids that Pharrell Williams might have just used "happy as a clam" in his hit song "Happy," but instead asked us to clap our hands if we felt like a "room without a roof."

Then I got into one of the really fascinating corners of the trait and explained how mirror touch synesthesia (MTS)—a kind of profound empathy—is present in a smaller subset of synesthetes worldwide and is a very hot research topic at present. In fact, top neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran not only says MTS is the most under-reported and important scientific discovery of the decade but that one day "it will do for psychology what DNA did for biology"—explaining hitherto mysterious processes of the brain and consciousness. He famously called the related brain cells "Gandhi Neurons" in this TED talk.

Blogger's Own Photograph of New Dorp High School.
Source: Blogger's Own Photograph of New Dorp High School.

Mirror touch neurons were first discovered in Italy by researchers studying macaque monkeys. They noticed that the same region of the primates' brains lit up in scanning machines whether they were performing a task or simply witnessing another monkey doing the task. This has enormous implications and suggests a vast "network" in which beings truly are all connected.

The young men and women were all over it with plenty of probing questions. They were appropriately excited by the idea that some people can literally feel other people's pain. They asked if I, too, experience this. "Yes," I said, at first sheepishly. (The research is new —the trait was only discovered in 2009—and like many people with MTS, I'm just coming to grips with it myself even having experienced it all of my life. I tend to write about other people with it instead.)

Then a hand went up in the front of me to my right.

"My friend and I each have the same injury on one of our feet. Can you tell us what it is?"

Gulp.

I didn't expect to be put on the spot like this. But these were the brightest of young people and why shouldn't they ask for empirical evidence? It was such a busy room as two classes were packed into it for the presentation and I was experiencing a lot of empathic "noise" from the various personalities gathered. Could I home in on just two young women and demonstrate this special ability? I paused and focused. And then I felt it in my own body.

 "It's your right feet and it's your toes." 

"Whoa!" said my interrogator. An audible gasp went up in the room as she explained that was exactly right.

There was no turning back now. More hands were going up.

"Where do I hurt right now?" asked the girl in the lavender sweatshirt to my left.

"You have a backache," I said, somehow discerning her pain from my own—present ever since a car accident last October.

"Yes!"

More gasps.

"Which wrist did I break first and where exactly?" asked a young man. I thought for a second about how this was a "busier" impression as both felt injured, but one seemed a little more healed. I pointed to the outside of the right bone on my own left wrist. 

"Yes!"

The bell rang. But that didn't stop the young people, who were now lining up in front of me at the head of the classroom.

"I hurt in two places. Can you tell me where?"

"You have a headache."

"Yes!"  (I honestly couldn't get the second one which was lesser discomfort on her shoulder from carrying a heavy bag).

"I've been doing something with one of my hands out of sight during your talk and I feel it now."

My own hand was tingling.

"It feels like you were pressing the point of a pen into your right palm."

"Yes!"

Ms. Kutza was moved to tears by the demonstration and I'm so glad I didn't let the young people down in their quest for truth.

Is this replicable in a laboratory setting? I'm game.

This story is about me, but it's also about all of us. Top researchers tell me they are about to publish a report demonstrating how MTS can be learned by non-synesthetes. More on that astonishing development soon.

The young men and women have been writing testimonials and Ms. Kutza has been kind enough to email them to me—proof of an extraordinary day for all of us.