"When I saw my puppy break her leg," CC Hart says, "I felt searing and electric zaps of pain down the back of my legs and the back of my arms."
It might seem like an extreme reaction to watching an animal get hurt, but the 52-year-old San Francisco massage therapist is part of a small community of people affected by mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS). For some women and men with MTS, watching violence—or even sex—can make them feel as though they're experiencing it first-hand.
Many people may already be familiar with grapheme-color synesthesia (where people see letters and numbers in colors ), but mirror-touch synesthesia is a whole different ballgame. Those with the unique neurological condition can experience the same sensations and feelings as someone they're looking at—whether it's on screen or in real life.
When Hart watches shows like Game of Thrones or war films, she says she can quite literally feel others' pain: "The torture, maiming, and killing makes me hyperventilate and makes me hurt where I see people getting cut and bludgeoned. I can't watch comedies either as there's a trend toward 'injury comedy' that show people being clueless and crashing their bikes. This is in no way funny to me—it hurts."
Although there isn't any official data on the number of mirror-touch synesthetes, Jared Medina, an assistant professor from the University of Delaware's department of psychological and brain sciences, estimates that it can affect between 1-2 percent of the population. He believes that the number may be higher, as many people who have MTS do not have a formal diagnosis.
Mirror neurons in the brain—which register activity when humans observe other people's behavior—may be at the root of the condition. Some scientists believe that those with mirror-touch synesthesia have more active mirror neurons than most people.
CC Hart is a massage therapist with mirror-touch synesthesia. Photo courtesy of subject
It's not hard to see why many people associate the condition with extreme empathy. When Hart sees a friend sobbing and rocking, for example, she says she feels her own body begin to sway and mimic her movements. She recalls feeling "lightning bolts of electricity" shooting down her legs and across her upper back and arms when a friend burned her hand on the stove.
Forty-three-year-old Nicola's synesthesia can take on many different forms: "If I see a person getting hurt, I get a stabbing or a sharp pain in the correlating area. And if a person has a cold, it feels like tiny biting insects inside my nose and mouth. But I also can feel whatever people are stroking or holding. So, if you're holding a cold banana, I can feel as though I am holding it. That's why I don't watch porn."
The film lecturer from South Wales—who requested her last name to be withheld for reasons of privacy—says her condition has meant she has to make adjustments to her day-to-day life. "I have to research locations before I go to them and films before I see them so I don't become overwhelmed. In crowds, there is too much going on and at parties where people are eating and holding drinks, it can become too much so I tend to avoid these kinds of things."
Similarly, Hart is forced to avoid certain public settings. Although she finds going to the ballet enjoyable as "[it] feels like I get exercise at the same time", watching performances can also trigger her mirror-touch.
"It has taught me how to go beyond thinking what it's like to be in another's shoes and to literally feel what it's like in their shoes."
"I tense and contract my muscles as if I was dancing on the stage too," she explains. "When I'm not careful, I will accidentally kick the seat in front of me. That's why I try to get front row seats for performances; I don't like disturbing other people with my involuntary movements."
Given its psychological and physical extremes, it's not uncommon for mirror-touch synesthetes to grapple with people questioning whether their condition is real at all. Nicola laments it can be "tiresome having to explain the condition to people" and says there are always "people who think it's funny to catch you out and do something stupid so you will feel it."
Considering that many of the people with mirror-touch synesthesia I spoke to were women, I asked Dr. Joel Salinas, a Harvard-trained researcher and neurologist who also has MTS, to explain why more women seem to suffer from the condition.
The Mirror Touch author says it is unlikely to be a sex or gender-based condition: "The prevalence of mirror touch tends to be about evenly spread between men and women." However, he hypothesizes that more mirror-touch synesthetes appear to be women, because they tend to self-report more frequently and volunteer to share their mirror touch experiences more often and more openly than men.
Salinas is also keen to stress that mirror-touch synesthesia is not a disease: "It would be more accurate to describe them as neurological or perceptual traits."
But why are some people more likely to develop the condition than others? Salinas attributes it to genetic factors: "If you have synesthesia you're much more likely to have at least one other family member who has it as well. Mirror touch-like sensory experiences are much more common in people with autistic spectrum disorders than in the general population." Salinas also points to the willingness of people to engage in these experiences and the brain's ability to re-appraise these experiences as being meaningful.
Considering that touch is such a central part of our lives, it's no wonder that those with mirror-touch synesthesia will retreat at home when daily interactions start to feel overwhelming—something that Hart can attest to: "It can be exhausting interacting constantly with other people, feeling their bodies as if it's my body."
Nicola agrees: "You can get into a really dark place sometimes. If a friend is hurting and depressed then that courses through you. You feel their pain both physically and emotionally."
But for all the pitfalls that come with mirror-touch synesthesia, that's not to say however the entire experience is negative. Nicola says it has allowed her to understand people better and experience the world differently: "With all the horrible hurting also comes nice feelings, such as hair being stroked, faces being kissed, and hands being held."
Hart even attributes her career success to it: "I feel as if I am the recipient of my massage session. I feel warm and tingly, almost as if my skin is glowing. My pleasurable experiences with mirror-touch have supported the longevity of my career as well as my ability to work full time in such a physically demanding field."
And although Salinas concedes that mirror-touch synesthesia means he is vulnerable to reflexively taking on others' darkest emotions them as if they were my own, he wouldn't trade it for anything. "It has taught me how to go beyond thinking what it's like to be in another's shoes and to literally feel what it's like in their shoes," he says, "and turning that empathy into compassion and kindness and hope."