Hyper-empathy and mirror-touch synaesthesia
Joined: Wed Mar 26, 2008 7:00 pm
Apparently, there are some "hyper-empathetic" people who have a condition known as mirror-touch synaesthesia where they can actually sense that they are being touched when they witness others being touched. Scientists say that a better understanding of this condition could lead to a better understanding of autism.
I'd be interested to meet one of these mirror-touch synaesthetes and ask them to look into my eyes and tell me how I'm feeling, because often I don't even know myself. Then again, I might not like the answer when I hear it.
Link to article (plus snippets) below
Study: People Literally Feel Pain of Others
By Charles Q. Choi
A brain anomaly can make the saying "I know how you feel" literally true in hyper-empathetic people who actually sense that they are being touched when they witness others being touched.
The condition, known as mirror-touch synesthesia, is related to the activity of mirror neurons, cells recently discovered to fire not only when some animals perform some behavior, such as climbing a tree, but also when they watch another animal do the behavior. For "synesthetes," it's as if their mirror neurons are on overdrive.
"We often flinch when we see someone knock their arm, and this may be a weaker version of what these synesthetes experience," University College London cognitive neuroscientist Jamie Ward said.
Now scientists find these synesthetes possess an unusually strong ability to empathize with others. Further research into this condition might shed light on the roots of empathy, which could help better understand autism, schizophrenia, psychopathy and other disorders linked with empathy.
Synesthesia is a condition where sensations that normally are experienced separately get blended together. The most common form is color-grapheme synesthesia, where a person experiences colors upon hearing or reading words. Others can taste words.
In mirror-touch synesthesia, when another person gets touched, the synaesthete feels a touch on their body. University College London cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore discovered a mirror-touch synesthete in 2003 by a stroke of good luck.
"I was giving a talk and mentioned synesthesia, and that anecdotally there were reports that some people felt touches they only observed, and there was a woman in the audience who asked, 'Doesn't everyone experience that? Isn't that completely normal?'" Blakemore recalled.
Until that point, that 39-year-old woman did not realize her mirror-touch synesthesia was unusual. "It was something she's always had," Blakemore told LiveScience. In fact, a cousin of hers also has it, suggesting it runs in families.
When the woman faced someone and saw that person get touched on the left cheek, she felt it on her right cheek. On the other hand, if she stood next to somebody and that person got touched on the right side, she felt a touch on her right side.
Now Ward and doctoral student Michael Banissy reveal 10 more mirror-touch synesthetes they discovered among University College London students, as well as among people who possess other types of synesthesia. (The woman that Blakemore has 11 relatives with color-grapheme synesthesia, and that woman had color-grapheme synesthesia herself when she was younger.)
The researchers had the mirror-touch synesthetes take a questionnaire designed to measure empathy. For instance, they were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "I can tune into how someone feels rapidly and intuitively."
The mirror-touch synesthetes scored significantly higher than people without synesthesia, findings detailed in the July issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
One mirror-touch synaesthete, Alice, said "I have never been able to understand how people can enjoy looking at bloodthirsty films, or laugh at the painful misfortunes of others when I can not only not look but also feel it." Another, Jane, said she felt her synesthesia is "a positive thing because I believe it makes me more considerate about the feelings of others."
Banissy told LiveScience that "when we observe another person being touched, we all activate areas of our brain similar to those activated when we are physically touched." In mirror-touch synesthetes, this mirror system is overactive. The resulting high level of empathy they demonstrate supports the notion that people learn to empathize by putting themselves in someone else's shoes.
"It is extraordinary to think that some people experience touch on their own body when they merely watch someone else being stroked or punched. However, this may be an exaggeration of a brain mechanism that we all possess to some degree," Ward said.
UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explained a better understanding of the mirror system could help shed light and treat autism, "which is well-known for not understanding the emotional states of others." Blakemore added such research could also help research into psychopaths, "where empathy goes wrong and people don't feel empathy in the normal way."
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i can relate to this. neshamaruach and i had an exchange about this, about being an AS empath - and about our difficulty with people because of it.
I went to the dentist a few weeks ago. he kept on getting mad at me because no implement would be touching my gums and i was still feeling ths drill because i HEARD the drill. he knows i have AS and i have very strange sensory processing so he knows what to expect. BUt it is still hard. I hit him in a meltdown. (and for those who don;t experience this, do you think you could refrain from calling me a little ratbag, as happened the last time i relayed these extreme sensory processing difficulties and the impact they can have on my life? just getting in first this time.........)
I wonder if this state is related to my sensory integration dysfunction. On WP and in other places, i have often talked about a lack of a membrane separating one sense from another. it is not as extreme as tasting numbers, but i see shapes for numbers and i also find it hard some days to go down to the shops because i cannot fathom all the complexities of people around me. I am swamped by feelings and by visuals and sounds and it is downright full on. it is very useful as a painter, but it is also difficult.
for example - a while back, on a morning walk , i saw an old scrofulous man leaning on his balcony. Very briefly and in all of two seconds, I saw a large ulcer on his leg - which was so overwhelmingly hideous - and i just entered into it - so to speak. I entered it visually. And i stress, this is NOT a hallucination because I am acutely aware of the process and the fact it is not real. But the sensory processing of it in this manner and format leads to REAL feelings and experience and perceptions. I cannot/could not dull the full intensity of my sensory experience of the ulcer and so i stood on the side of the road retching. I did not feel the ulcer on my leg, but i can conjure up the feelin gof an ulcer if i so wish. and I certainly struggle when i see things like this. It is indeed extreme, and my reactions and experiences are far more pronounced than those of people around me.
a trip to the mall can lead to vomiting.
Peoples' faces become macabre creases of flesh and skin.
Similarly i can feel intense happiness and beauty. that's the good part.
a room filled with people is a tumble and jumble of facial expressions and loud noises and too much sensory information for me to even begin to process. hence, i stay away from crowds and groups, and the onley way i contended with them when younger was to self-medicate and dull the sensory overload.
all very interesting. thanks for posting the article and the info.
Joined: Wed Jun 18, 2008 7:00 pm
If I could create my own world and have my own way, ideally, no one would be able to tell what others are feeling and would have to ask to find out.
A lot of the time I look like I am in a bad mood or upset without realizing it and people assume I am having a crisis when I am not. I wish no one could tell anything by looking at the expression on my face.
Joined: Sat Sep 15, 2007 7:00 pm
I had something like this when I was young.
I used to have sympathetic nose bleeds. If I saw someone who had a nose bleed (and especially if I could smell the blood) my nose would start gushing blood too. I also had a high sensitivity to watching others with eye irritation or crying.
I really empathised with animals much more than people though. Still do. But as a kid, of someone kicked a dog, I'd feel it, somewhat physically but mostly emotionally.
IN GIRVM IMVS NOCTE ET CONSVMIMVR IGNI
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I empathize with kids and animals more because adults throw me for loops more often. They tend to confuse me by what they say and what I feel from them. However, if I look into their eyes it seems to draw a better connection. I scored pretty bad on the reading expressions test. People very often try to mask their real feelings and my analytical side battles my gut feelings. If I see someone get hurt I feel it. I'm very tactile sensitive too. I love textures.
I can't watch violent movies. I won't even read the news most of the time. It's sort of depressing sometimes and other times I feel an enormous amount of love for everyone.
Joined: Sat Dec 13, 2008 7:00 pm
I n feel things that may or may not happen to a certain extent. For example, I can be walking by something sharp and feel it peircing my eye even though it is not close to it . Or when I pick up a sharp knife, I can feel it impaling me (quite painful I would add, although not quite as painful if I actually were impaled). I can feel someone touch me when their hand comes within a certain proximity to my skin, which is a brutally horrible feeling. I have experienced some physical sensation from certain things, like a person kissing on tv, and a whole bunch of other things.... I'm just going to assume most of this is paranoia.
Joined: Tue Aug 24, 2010 7:00 pm
I can actually sense when others are upset, and I can feel for others so much that I cry...for example, I was watching a movie, and some people were getting hurt, and I felt so overwhelmed with emotions that I had to sit outside...I also sometimes feel "pinpricks" when someone gets hurt or attacked on television, and if others are near a hot building, I start to feel sweaty. I also started screaming and crying when I watched the sequel to "The Little Mermaid" (Ariel's daughter was getting taken away, and Ariel's father was upset about that), and I started getting upset when I was watching this show, and a man had encephelitis. I feel empathy for people in other ways, but I forgot how...
Joined: Fri Jul 23, 2010 7:00 pm
what do you mean look into your eyes? MTS is more than physical? I dont have that really but I think watching people be hurt or beat up is kinda sickening and sick lol I think that is the closest I get. I do have issues with too much of that for the world and sometimes its overwhelming...too many hurting people for that. Deciding to stay home for the DC trip for example was a horrible idea, I felt like all I did was watch people tease Jason :/ I didnt even go the 3rd day most of the school was away (there were people who either stayed at school for the fieldtrip, or couldnt go because of too many referrals or suspensions) ugh it was just horrible to watch or think about (especially eye witness, for someone whose got issues even reading an account) and I really hate the people who did that like couldnt they just lay the... off... (lmao at the end of this sentence)
Joined: Sat Jun 19, 2010 7:00 pm
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Joined: Mon Jul 05, 2004 7:00 pm
I'm yet another autistic person who has too much empathy rather than too little. I've talked to a lot of autistic people who are like this, including Dawn Prince-Hughes who has written several books. The idea that autistic people are on one end of the 'empathy spectrum' and really empathetic people are on the other, is extremely simplistic compared to how it really works.
"In my world it's a place of patterns and feel. In my world it's a haven for what is real. It's my world, nobody can steal it, but people like me, we live in the shadows." -Donna Williams
Joined: Tue May 24, 2011 7:00 pm
I have lived with this all my life. I can't look into the eyes of another person without knowing what they feel. If someone cries, I cry. I do not respond in kind to other's anger. Only sad or happy emotions.
I watch a movie and I must become the protagonist or it is irrelevant to me. I enjoy crazy intelligent nonsense such as "The Venture Brothers" or "South Park" but can't enjoy anything mean. It goes so far into my psyche that if I happen to see a stone that should have been on a lawn with a particular color and is now on the street, I actually feel a sympathy that it's been abandoned and will toss it back into the yard that matches its color.
I can't enjoy romantic comedies because I have to be able to be the woman and I am overweight and can't put myself into her role. If I can't be "her" I can't enjoy the story.
I am almost 60 years old. I have a nephew who has Aspergers. I have been compulsive all my life, practicing piano for hours on end until my mother shut the lid on me. I don't sleep. If I have to go to a meeting and don't have time for breakfast, I might stop at a Burger King for a coffee and a biscuit. Then, on my way to where I have to go, I will see a homeless person and stop and give that person my breakfast and not eat until I get home, sometimes not until evening.
I am a political junkie, and have many pets. I have to shut off the TV and put tons of mail into recycling because I can't look at pain without going crazy. I have been able to control this by not looking. That's the only way.
I cry every day. I also rejoice, usually with tears, at anything that brings goodness to the lives of others. But I would not be honest if I didn't say that my empathy hasn't caused me tremendous hardship. Burglary by children I have mentored, money borrowed and never repaid, parents and children who have taken advantage.
There it is. If it helps in your research, I'm available. It helps to talk about it. I have a compulsion to go on but I will refrain.
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