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Why do we cringe when we see someone else step on a thumbtack or fall off a bike? Neurologist Dr. Joel Salinas joins The Doctors to explain why, and to tell us about his own extreme reaction to the pain of others.
Dr. Salinas’ new book “Mirror Touch” explores the phenomenon of sympathetic pain. “We all have this system in our brain called the ‘mirror touch system,’ where it combines our vision and touch senses,” he tells The Doctors. “When we see some other people getting touch, that’s simulated in us.” And when we see other people experiencing heightened touch – like getting injured – we almost feel the pain they experience.
We all have the mirror touch system, but for about two percent of the population it goes much further. “They have what’s called ‘mirror touch synesthesia,’ where that activity is so high that you actually literally feel it on your own body, as if it was happening to you,” explains Dr. Salinas. He’s very familiar with this kind of synesthesia … because he has it himself.
He first noticed it as a child, watching cartoons. “When the roadrunner got hit by a truck, I got hit by a truck!” In people with mirror touch synesthesia, the parts of their brain devoted to mirror touch are larger and more active than normal, while the part that draws distinctions between “my body” and “not my body” is less developed. “So that whole mirror touch system is way out of control,” he explains.
Dr. Salinas says his synesthesia makes him more empathetic as a doctor, and can help him make diagnoses. Although it might not be fun to feel the pain of others, it can make for good medicine!