What is mirror-touch synesthesia?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Getty/AnnaStills
Do you experience mirror-touch synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense is activated when a different sense is stimulated. People with synesthesia may “see” colors and shapes when listening to music. Others may associate letters, numbers, or names with colors or taste. Of the many types of synesthesia, only about two percent of people experience mirror touch synesthesia. Mirror or mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS) refers to a synesthete’s ability to see another person being touched and to feel a related tactile sensation on the synesthete’s own body. Read on to learn more about this rare form of synesthesia. 

Projective synesthesia disorder

Mirror touch synesthesia falls under the umbrella of projective synesthesia disorder (PSD), a condition in which the individual can see certain shapes, forms, or colors when experiencing other sensory stimuli, such as sound or taste. One form of PSD is chromesthesia, in which synesthetes see colors when they hear a certain type of music. Another type of PSD is grapheme-color synesthesia, which is the ability to see numbers or letters in different colors even if the printed number or letter is in reality a single color. 

The role of mirror neurons

While neuroscientists have yet to settle on a definitive explanation for mirror touch synesthesia, the most common theory is built upon research into the mirror neuron system. The human brain has a specialized group of neurons called mirror neurons that help us understand other people’s actions and their intentions as we watch them. Mirror neurons are why we can intuit someone’s emotional mood from watching their facial expression, and how we can learn language through imitating other language-speakers. Our sense of empathy towards other people is also partly thanks to mirror neurons, which enable us to sense another person’s emotional or physical state as if it were our own. 

Empathy is often a necessary social skill for humans and other similar animals who need to work together to improve their chances of survival. In general, empathy is an capability we are born with that we can continue to nurture and develop over a lifetime.  

Many of us empathize with others on a regular basis, but we are typically able to distance ourselves from these emotions in order to focus on our own lives. People who experience mirror touch synesthesia may literally feel the same physical pain as others and may be prone to overstimulation or overwhelm.
Getty

A tactile sense of empathy

Thanks to mirror neurons, most people can watch another person’s facial expressions or movements and unconsciously simulate or empathize with their emotional or physical state. However, for people with mirror touch synesthesia, it is theorized that hyperactivity in parts of the brain where mirror neurons are present causes this unconscious empathy to cross the threshold into conscious sensation. The intensity of the synesthesia varies among people with MTS. Some people may feel a slight tingling or nudge when watching another person, while others can be physically and emotionally overpowered by their mirrored sensations. 

It is important to note that not all neuroscientists agree with this theory. Some believe that MTS may be caused by a different cognitive problem in which the synesthete has trouble distinguishing their self and body from other bodies. Still other experts postulate that some forms of synesthesia may be genetic. Color sequence synesthesia, for example, is almost always found in individuals who have relatives with the same condition. One study of families with color sequence synesthesia hypothesized that their shared trait may be caused by a genetic mutation.

Diagnosing mirror-touch synesthesia

To diagnose mirror-touch synesthesia, there are two criteria that must be met:

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

Some people with MTS may also feel the somatic manifestations of other people’s emotions, such as feeling “butterflies” in their stomach when watching an anxious or nervous person. 

In most studies that have tested individuals for mirror touch synesthesia, individuals were instructed to watch another person being touched and state whether they had a synesthetic response. One study found that synesthetes were more likely to mirror sensations seen on a human body versus a test dummy, noting that synesthetes with MTS also tend to have higher levels of empathy towards other people. 

Getty
Do you experience mirror-touch synesthesia?

Support for living with MTS

If you believe you have mirror-touch synesthesia, it may be natural to have questions about your unique abilities. For some people with MTS, their hypersensitivity may interfere with their sense of emotional autonomy and physical well-being. Whether you are curious to explore MTS further, or you need support in coping with its effects, an online therapist may be a helpful resource. A therapist can work with you to design coping strategies for when your symptoms of MTS become overwhelming or disruptive. 

Research suggests that online therapy can be a useful option for treating mental health concerns as well as making care more accessible. The American Psychological Association reviewed multiple studies that showed online therapy as an effective modality for treating depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health concerns. 

Because you can attend sessions from anywhere you have an internet connection and smart device, online therapy can help save you the time and money you might otherwise dedicate to commuting, childcare, and other expenses. If you are concerned about finding a therapist who is knowledgeable of synesthesia and MTS, platforms like BetterHelp can match you to a relevant therapist after you take a brief intake questionnaire.

Counselor Reviews

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 right questions to ask and has made me feel safe to tell 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.”

Takeaway

Mirror touch synesthesia is a rare form of synesthesia in which a person may feel a tactile response in their own body when watching another person experience pain or touch. Someone with MTS may even experience the physical sensations of someone else’s emotions. In some cases, the hypersensitivity caused by MTS can affect a person’s well-being. If you are seeking guidance or support about living with MTS, an online therapist can help you develop coping strategies.

Explore the unique ways you see the world

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started