Is Mirror Touch Synesthesia a Real Thing?
Mirror touch synesthesia is a condition that causes a person to feel a sensation of touch when they see someone else being touched.
The term “mirror” refers to the idea that a person mirrors the sensations they see when someone else is touched. This means when they see a person touched on the left, they feel the touch on the right.
According to the University of Delaware, an estimated 2 in 100 people have this condition. Keep reading to find out the current research on this condition, and some ways to know if you have it.
Is it real?
One study from the University of Delaware involved showing more than 2,000 students videos of hands that were either palms up or down. The video then shows the hand being touched.
The person watching the video is asked if they felt a touch anywhere on their body. An estimated 45 respondents reported they also felt a touch on their hands.
Doctors use the term “synesthetes” to describe those who experience mirror touch synesthesia. They associate the condition with structural differences in the brain that cause people to process sensory information differently than others, according to an article in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience.
There’s more research left to conduct in this field. There are different processing pathways for translating sensations of touch and feel. Currently, researchers theorize that mirror touch synesthesia may be the result of an overactive sensory system.
Connections with empathy
A lot of research surrounding mirror touch synesthesia focuses on the concept that people with this condition are more empathetic than those who don’t have the condition. Empathy is the ability to deeply understand a person’s feelings and emotions.
In a study published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology, people with mirror touch synesthesia were shown a picture of a person’s face and were better able to recognize emotions compared with people without the condition.
Researchers theorized that people with mirror touch synesthesia have enhanced sensations of social and cognitive recognition compared with others.
One study in the journal PLOS OneTrusted Source didn’t connect mirror touch synesthesia with increased empathy. The study’s authors separated participants into three groups and measured their self-reported empathy. The study also found that a percentage of people who reported having mirror touch synesthesia also reported having some form of autism spectrum condition.
These results were different from similar studies, so it’s difficult to know what conclusions are most accurate.
Signs and symptoms
Mirror touch synesthesia is one type of synesthesia. Another example is when a person sees colors in response to certain sensations, such as sound. For example, singers Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel have reported they experience music as a sensation of colors.
According to an article in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers have identified two main subtypes of touch synesthesia.
The first is mirror, where a person experiences a sensation of touch on the opposite side of their body as another person is touched. The second is an “anatomical” subtype where a person experiences a sensation of touch on the same side.
The mirror type is the most common type. Some of the condition’s symptoms include:
- feeling pain in the opposite side of the body when another person feels pain
- feeling a sensation of touch when you see another person being touched
- experiencing different sensations of touch when another person is touched, such as:
- sensations varying in severity from a mild touch to a deep, stabbing pain
Most people with the condition report having it since childhood.
Can it be diagnosed?
Doctors haven’t identified specific tests that can diagnose mirror touch synesthesia. Most people self-report symptoms.
The condition doesn’t currently appear in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) that psychiatrists use to diagnose disorders such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and others. For this reason, there are no specific diagnostic criteria.
Researchers are trying to identify tests and tools to help doctors diagnose consistently. One example included showing videos of a person being touched and seeing how the person watching the videos responds. However, these aren’t yet fully developed.
Ways to cope
It can be difficult to closely experience the touch sensations of others. Some people may view the condition as beneficial because they’re better able to relate to others. Some find it negative because they experience strong, negative emotions — sometimes pain — because of what they see and feel.
Some may benefit from therapy to try to better process their sensations. One common method is to imagine a protective barrier between yourself and the person who is being touched.
Some people with mirror touch synesthesia may also benefit from prescription medications that help navigate the emotions evoked by the condition, such as anxiety and depression.
When to see a doctor
If you find that you’re avoiding daily activities, such as being social or even watching television, due to a fear of the touch sensations you may see, talk to your doctor.
While mirror touch synesthesia is a known condition, research is still exploring how to best treat it. You can ask your doctor if they know of any therapists who specialize in sensory processing disorders.
The bottom line
Mirror touch synesthesia is a condition that causes a person to feel the sensations of being touched on the opposite side or part of their body when they see another person being touched.
While there aren’t yet specific diagnostic criteria, doctors can treat the condition as a sensory processing disorder. This can help a person better deal with the fear or concern of a painful or unpleasant mirror touch synesthesia episode.
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