Dr. Joel Salinas’ medical school mentor isn’t just a professor of psychiatry who studies the brain and behavior. Dr. Peg Nopoulos is also a combination of twos, threes and fives (heavy on the twos) as well as reds, violets, and oranges. Though that may sound like a psychedelic drug trip or some bizarre new-age reverie, Salinas is simply describing how he sees his mentor and friend. A Harvard neurologist and researcher, Salinas has what’s known as synesthesia, an intricate neurologic trait where his senses routinely commingle. He experiences motion as sound, music as color, shapes as tastes and—due to what’s known as mirror touch synesthesia—he literally feels the sensations of others.
“Mirror touch synesthesia is a result of the brain system called the mirror touch system or mirror neuron system,” says Salinas. “Whenever we see somebody being touched, our brain reacts as if we are being touched. For most people that process is unconscious but we can see that information through a functional MRI. For the two out of 100 that have mirror touch synesthesia, that system is very, very hyperactive.”
One of the most extreme examples of Salinas’ ability to identify with his patients was the time he had to will himself to breathe while a patient was dying. Over the years he’s had to learn how to filter his experiences so he can stay clear on where his reality ends and another’s begins. In his new book, Mirror Touch: Notes From a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain, Salinas chronicles both the peculiar challenges and extraordinary advantages of being a polysynesthete—a person who has multiple forms of synesthesia. While he has to be careful not to get lost in another’s experience, Salinas says that mirror touch has given him an enhanced ability to empathize with his patients.
“One of the things that I find really hopeful is not just that mirror touch synesthesia exists,” says Salinas, “but the hardware in our brain is there to help us empathize really deeply with other people. There are two forms of empathy: there's a thinking empathy and a feeling empathy, or affective empathy. Mirror touch synesthetes have a higher sense of affective empathy. For me it's like a brain reflex. Before my own biases kick in, I'm already in the person's shoes, automatically.”
Salinas says research shows that we are more likely to empathize with others if we feel closely related to them. That could mean being genetically related, or it could be a bond forged by a more intentional connection.
“When I start conversations with somebody, especially if I know that we have very different viewpoints, I try to avoid the polarizing topics,” says Salinas. It's so important to start with what connects you. Sometimes that means going as far back as childhood. Finding our cultural commons: what TV shows you grew up with, superheroes, what countries or cities you were a part of, or just stories about brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. Once you establish that we're the same species, I think we can begin to have a civil conversation.”
Many will likely read the book to discover what it’s like to have melded senses. But Salinas believes it may have another, less obvious result.
“My hope with this book is that people will not only learn more about mirror touch synesthesia and how the brain works,” says Salinas, “but also learn how to develop their own heightened sense of empathy. While mirror touch synesthetes have an automatic ability to identify with another’s pain, empathy begins for most of us with a willingness to try and understand what it’s like to be in another’s shoes.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer and photojournalist living in Austin.