What Is Mirror Touch Synesthesia?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 8, 2022

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Only about two percent of people in the entire world experience mirror-touch synesthesia, so it is a pretty rare condition. Synesthesia is commonly known as a feeling that is produced by one sense when a different sense is stimulated. In other words, the experience is sometimes described as the ability to see music or hear colors. Mirror synesthesia is the ability to see and feel what other people are seeing or feeling. It is like empathy, only 100 times stronger. It can be so severe that it disrupts your life if you have the condition.

Empathy Makes Us Human

You have probably heard of empathy. This is the ability to understand other people's feelings and thoughts. Most people are empathetic. Some are more so than others. Empathetic people can put themselves in another’s position and, in a sense, feel what they feel in a specific situation. This is what makes living beings so amazing. A computer can be programmed to understand feelings, but it cannot understand how you feel. This is not just reserved for humans either. Studies have shown that some animals, such as primates, canines, and felines, can also understand how we feel.

Narcissists Lack Empathy

However, some people have trouble understanding how others feel. Does this mean they are not human? Of course not. But if you truly are unable to understand other people's feelings at all, this could mean you are a narcissist. There is no need to jump to conclusions, and you should consult a mental health professional if you believe you are showing symptoms of narcissist personality disorder. It may the case that nothing is wrong. Some people are not quite in touch with their inner feelings. A true narcissist also has no remorse, thinks they are more entitled than everyone else, and manipulate or deceive others to get what they want. If you are having trouble understanding other people's feelings, it could be due to a condition called empathy deficit disorder (EDD). You may have trouble tuning into other people. Again, you should seek guidance from a mental health professional if you believe you are displaying diagnosable symptoms.

Losing Your Empathy

You can lose your ability to empathize with others. For example, if you are someone who normally empathizes with others but are going through too many of your struggles, you may become too absorbed in your issues to concern yourself with other people's problems. Some of us who are going through rough times tend to understand better how it feels when others have similar issues. But others are jaded by their troubles and do not want to acknowledge those feelings again. However, most people are hard-wired to have empathy, so it will likely return eventually.

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Sympathy Versus Empathy

Sympathy and empathy are two different things. Sympathy means you can understand other people's situations from your point of view. Empathy means you can see and feel things another person is going through as if you were experiencing them yourself. A narcissist can have sympathy, even if it is used as a tool to pretend to know how others feel. Empathy is something that some people are born with. But anyone can nurture and develop their empathetic capabilities.

The ability to feel things that other people feel may seem like it would be a blessing. But it can be a very stressful condition that can seriously affect your life. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting, as well as terrifying and extremely maddening. Just being in a room with other people and being able to feel what they are feeling can elicit such a jumble of mixed emotions and physical stimuli.

Mirroring Their Feelings

Imagine that, while watching your friend do some gardening, she is stung by a bee in hand. You suddenly feel a burning and stinging sensation on your hand in the same spot. Or maybe your sister is sad about losing one of her best friends. She is crying, and you cannot help but cry too. Although it is named mirror-touch synesthesia, you may not feel the sensation the same way as the person you are watching does. The term mirror, in this case, just means that you are mirroring their sensations, or feeling what they feel.

What Causes Mirror Touch Synesthesia?

This condition is typically a developmental disorder, but it has also been known to affect individuals who have lost one of their extremities. The somatosensory mirror system (or sensory receptors) are hyperactive in some people, causing them to be able to feel what others feel. These sensory receptors are all over your body and are connected to neurons in your central nervous system.

However, the severity of the synesthesia will vary for everyone. Some people are barely able to notice the sensation, while others are physically and emotionally debilitated by the condition. In one study, a functional MRI was able to show that those with mirror-touch synesthesia have an increase in activity in certain areas of the brain when seeing others experience certain stimuli.

Some experts also believe that the condition may be genetic. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that certain types of synesthesia were genetic and were able to be determined in neuroimaging studies. According to these experts, the neurons in the brain of these subjects were crossed or misfiring, causing the individuals to feel and see things that others do not. Color sequence synesthesia is almost always found in individuals who had relatives with the condition.

Diagnosing Mirror-Touch Synesthesia

To diagnose mirror-touch synesthesia, there are two criteria that you must meet. They include:

  • A synesthetic response or the unconscious sensation of feeling what others you observe are feeling.
  • Experiencing higher levels of empathy than others.  

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In most studies, individuals were instructed to watch another being touched and state whether they have a synesthetic response and how it feels. It was found that the object being used to touch the other subject was important in this study. If the item used for touch was a solid or hard object, like a hand or knife, the sensation was much stronger than if the object used was soft, such as a feather.

Also, medical experts were able to pinpoint the differences in the brains and central nervous systems of those with mirror-touch synesthesia. To determine the actual brain stimulation activity, researchers typically use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or a transcranial direct current stimulation (TDC).

However, those who have mirror-touch synesthesia can also feel emotions from others such as sadness, anxiety, and anger. When observing others who were feeling these emotions, the synesthetic was feeling these emotions without even trying. However, empathy is much more common than synesthesia. Most of us naturally feel happier when observing others who are happy or having fun. Of course, those with mirror-touch synesthesia feel empathy at a much stronger level than most of us.

Projective Synesthesia Disorder

Mirror-touch synesthesia is projective synesthesia. Projective synesthesia disorder (PSD) is a condition in which the individual can see certain shapes, forms, or colors when experiencing other things. One form of this is chromesthesia, which only affects one out of every three thousand people. If you have this condition, you can see colors when you hear a certain type of music. Another type of PSD is grapheme-color synesthesia, which is the ability to see a number or letter in a certain color. For example, you may refer to the letter C as red or the number two as yellow.

Mental Health

People with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are more susceptible to mirror-touch synesthesia as well. Are you having trouble concentrating? Or have you been sleeping more than usual? Maybe you are so tired that you do not want to get out of bed on most days. Or maybe you have trouble falling and staying asleep. These are just a few of the signs indicating that you may be experiencing some type of mental health condition. Some others include:

  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Eating more or less than normal
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities
  • Extreme and chronic fatigue
  • Constantly worrying about one certain thing or everything in general
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24/7 at 800-273-8255.

Help Is Waiting For You

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It is common for those experiencing mirror-touch synesthesia to have questions. If you do, or if you believe this condition is having a negative effect on your life, you might want to consider seeking help via online therapy. While the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic halted most in-person business, mental health services have continued to reach patients via online platforms like BetterHelp. Online counseling can replicate the same success as in-person treatment. Many believe it will continue in popularity once the pandemic subsides.

If you or someone you care about has any of these symptoms, help is out there. You can easily and conveniently get in touch with online counselors at BetterHelp. You do not even need an appointment. Just click on this link and answer a few questions. A licensed professional with experience in your specific issue will contact you right away, and you will not even have to leave the house. Read what others have to say about their experience with BetterHelp below.

“Kimberly is warm, caring, empathetic and a great listener! She seems to know the write questions to ask and has made me feel safe to share authentically what is happening in my heart and mind. She is clearly skilled in her work. I would recommend Kimberly to anyone who is looking for a great therapist!”

“Dianne is the best therapist I’ve ever had, and I love her approach! She’s amazing and has helped me so much, just so empathetic and feels like I’m talking to a real person. In the past with therapists it feels like there’s a bit of a detachment and I’m being fired with questions but not getting much back, but with Dianne it’s a real dialogue and she’s a super warm person.”

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