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Life and Simulated Death with Mirror Touch Synaesthesia

Since she was young, Luna Jones has had the “superhuman” ability to feel everything you (and everyone else) feels. Is it a burden or a gift?

THE SWORD THRUST through her stomach hurt the most, Luna Jones said. It was September 2018, and, at a holiday resort on New Zealand’s East Coast, the then 13-year-old Jones was being kicked, knocked-around and stabbed.

The blade in question was a deadly sharp Japanese “Katana.” As the blade went in, Jones remembered a “real burning sort of feeling.” Jones, soon overwhelmed by pain, started to throw up.

Except Jones hadn’t been stabbed, not technically.

A minute earlier, feeling herself about to be sick from pain, Jones rushed to the hotel toilet. There, she went over what had just happened in her mind. Jones had just been in the room where she and the others had been sitting down for the opening scene of Deadpool 2. A viscerally gruesome experience for most, for Jones’s body, watching the opening shots of dismembers and stabbings unfold those two years ago, Deadpool had been a painful reality.

Only Jones hadn’t been stabbed—she’d just watched it on screen. (In the film, antihero Deadpool swings by pools of bathing Yakuza—Japanese Mafia—and proceeds to serve justice with a sword.) But she’d certainly felt it, and that one sword stroke through the stomach hurt most out of all the maiming going on in Deadpool 2. At the time, Jones shrugged this vicarious pain off. She thought she must’ve just “been really squeamish”, she said, in an interview two years after the incident. “And everyone else thought I’d eaten too much junk food.” Other theories included a “guilty conscience;” after all, Jones laughed: she was “definitely not allowed to watch it.”

Heading back to her friends, though, Jones soon forgot about the TV stabbing that had felt remarkably like her own.

***

IN AN INTERVIEW with Affinity in April this year, Jones admitted there were other odd things like this, although she hadn’t picked up on them at the time.

Family gatherings would often just get “too overwhelming.” Jones would get headaches suddenly, without any apparent cause. And, an aspirin wouldn’t fix it. Sometimes, playing football, Jones would break down with “asthma attacks.” She didn’t have asthma before football, or after. “I just thought I was unfit,” she said. Jones was seemingly always sick, with one ailment or another. Then suddenly, the illness would vanish.

And then there were the ghosts that touched her. Jones used to get frights, feeling someone’s hand brush her arm when no one clearly had. “Back then they didn’t seem odd, not really,” she said. “I didn’t link them.”

But although Jones didn’t really have a question, she soon got an answer to the curious instances of unexplained sickness and sensations.

***

JONES WANTS TO BE a psychiatrist in the future.  Last year, Jones started doing research into her future career: delving into mental illnesses. She came upon one particular mental phenomenon: “Synaesthesia.” It’s not exactly a disorder or mental illness, as it’s not listed in the “DSM”—the dominant psychiatry manual. There’s also no consistent formula for testing for it.

Instead, synaesthesia is a kind of mental phenomenon. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it’s “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.” In other words, it’s when one sensory sensation causes another unlinked sensory sensation.

Reading more online, Jones learned about the different types of synaesthesia. There’s “Chromesthesia,” where people see colors when they hear sounds. The pop star Ella Yelich-O’Connor, or “Lorde,” has this. For every musical note she hears, corresponding colors appear in front of her eyes. Or, “Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia,” where certain words cause a strong taste in a person’s mouth.

But one name of the list of different synaesthesia branches caught Jones’ attention: Mirror Touch Synesthesia (MTS). “At first, my brain bucked at the concept a bit,” Jones said. “The idea seemed superhuman, and I was just normal, so it couldn’t apply to me.” But the more Jones read into it, “the more I could see myself in it,” she said.

MTS is a neurological condition that affects—according to most estimates—around 1.6% of the world’s population. Since its discovery in 2005, studies into the phenomenon have increased, and there’s now a general definition. That is: when someone sees someone else feel something, they feel that same thing on their own body.

As Jones read the comments on various articles explaining MTS, she became more excited.

“Oh, I have this! I find I have to avoid people, as they can be overwhelming,” wrote one commenter.

That Jones had MTS explained the ghosts and the headaches, as well as things she hadn’t even thought about before. The comments struck a chord. It was “a million little things,” Jones said. Mirror touch meant she could “tick them all off in her mind.” “I’m the sort of person who likes having an answer for everything,” she said.

For Jones, it was “such a relief.” She had Mirror Touch Synaesthesia. When people felt things, by a quirk of the brain, she felt them too. Jones finally had an explanation for why, on that night two years ago, when Deadpool thrust a Katana through the torso of a semi-naked Sumo wrestler on the hotel TV, she felt such a terrible burn.

***

ALTHOUGH THERE’S NO set way to do it, neuroscientists tend to test for Mirror Touch Synaesthesia in a particular way A person is set up facing someone else. Researchers then touch the subject on, say, their left cheek. Meanwhile, the subject watches the person they’re facing get touched on their left cheek too. If the subject has MTS, they’ll feel the observed touch on their right cheek, automatically and without thinking about it. In other words, they are a literal ‘mirror’ of sensations. In fact, people with MTS often are unable to distinguish which sensation was real, and which was observed.

MTS is a new subject for neuroscientists, and researchers don’t have a solid explanation for exactly how it works. The idea is that Watching another person being touched activates a similar neural circuit to actual touch and, for some people with ‘mirror-touch’ synesthesia, can produce a felt tactile sensation on their own body,” as a 2018 study by British neuroscientist Prof. Jamie Ward reads. This “mirroring” is actually something most humans may do, just without producing that “tactile sensation.” Typically, MRI scans show specific regions of the brain are activated when people see others being touched. In Jones, this “mirroring mechanism” would appear to be dialed up.

Affinity interviewed Ward from the University of Sussex, in mid-April. Ward is a prolific researcher into MTS. He explained Mirror-touch like this: “People with MTS have an overactive mirroring system for sensations like touch and pain—we can see this with brain imaging when we show them movies of people being touched.” The big question for neuroscientists, then, is why does the over-activity happen?

In people with MTS, most theories suggest that the brain may not be able to differentiate between observed and actual touch. The “somatosensory mirror system,” which typically separates the two types of touches, could be operating below a certain threshold. Researchers think this could explain how people with MTS feel observed touches on their own body, and why they can’t tell the difference between the two. “Our explanation for it is that they have differences in switching [the] mechanisms that, in most people, enable them to flip attention between their own feelings (tuning out the feelings of others) or to flip attention to other people’s feelings (tuning out their own feelings),” Ward said. “In people with MTS there appears to be a kind of self-other blurring.” In other words, an inability to “tune” their brain to themselves.

And as Jones’s story shows, Mirror-touch is not all “superhuman” brilliance.

***

TO UNDERSTAND JONES’ experience, she said it helps to imagine a crowd. “Say I’m walking through [it]—there’s a guy walking past who’s got an itchy jumper. There’s someone else who might have a cold. Someone else might be walking in too-big shoes.” For someone with MTS, all these things are “hitting at once.”

“Sometimes there’s a sensory overload,” Jones said. In large crowds, Jones is picking up on a whole bag of sensations, and it can sometimes get too much. Jones describes MTS as “an enhancement; of other people, of my own abilities and just life in general.” But by enhancement, Jones means every sensation is multiplied. Jones is living a dialed-up life, with everything “bigger and louder.”

Mirror-touch doesn’t just mean reflecting tactile things. Ward explains: “People with MTS tend to mirror other people’s emotions.  Anecdotally, they say things like “I am feeling angry but—hang on a minute—does that anger really belong to me or that other person?”

Image via Josep Rosell

There’s some debate whether this mirroring of emotions really translates into “empathy.”

It depends on how you define empathy. “It’s a multi-faceted idea,” Ward explained. “Mirroring is a part of empathy and this is definitely increased in people with MTS. But people debate whether mirroring is the main part of empathy and some people argue that it might even be unhelpful.” Other aspects of empathy such as ‘cognitive empathy’ (wanting to put yourself in others’ “mental shoes”) have no proven link to MTS.

But what this emotional mirroring does is give people like Jones little control over their own feelings.

Sometimes, Jones can get “lost” in other people’s emotions. “When I meet someone with a broken ankle, there’s pain. But it leaves when I go away. But when I meet someone who’s sad, their sadness triggers my own.” Jones is left feeling down long after the originally sad person passes around the street corner.

Ward (who hasn’t met Jones) reminds me: “They can also get a buzz from positive emotions and joy in a room too.  So it isn’t all negative. But the problem is that they might have limited control over those emotions. They have to go with the flow.”

Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in downtown Boston, who also lives with MTS, shared a similar characterization of emotional overload in an interview with Vice.

“It can be a self-perpetuating loop. If someone starts to feel attraction for him, Salinas could start to mirror it back—even if he doesn’t feel the same way—and it can snowball. If someone has recently been through something traumatic, it’s easy for him to get pulled into the emotionality of that and build a bond based on the sensations he’s mirroring,” Vice wrote.

With all the foreign emotions and sensations Jones is feeling as her own, it’s also sometimes easy for her to lose her sense of self. “So in people with MTS there appears to be a kind of self-other blurring,” Ward said. Jones often feels “dreamlike,” or sees herself from a bird’s eye view. This is called depersonalization, and it’s a mental condition where people start to feel detached from themselves. One theory for the cause of MTS involves a low-functioning somatosensory mirror system, the part of the brain that deals with distinguishing yourself from others. Depersonalization is sometimes a side effect, as Jones shows.

“One consequence of [self-blurring] is that [people with MTS] behave differently on a wider set of measures, and not just those that are related to touch and pain. So we see differences on questionnaire measures of depersonalisation (a sense that their body boundaries are fluid) and on emotion contagion (feeling happy when seeing others happy, feeling anger when seeing others angry, etc),” Ward said.

This all poses the question: is there a kind of therapy overwhelmed people with MTS like Jones can get? Not exactly. “I think it’s more a question of coping strategy rather than therapy,” Ward said. And the obvious coping strategy is simply: “looking away, leaving the room, thinking of other things.” Ward admitted there isn’t “really any research on this but it’s an important topic.”

There are some new developments. Recent studies have shown that the bodies of people with MTS have learned to regulate parts of themselves. “We’ve shown…that people with MTS are good at regulating their heartbeat when viewing painful images (better than the regular person).  This isn’t really something they would have trained themselves on but rather something that their body has learned to do,” Ward explains.

***

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of commentators at the moment calling for more empathetic leaders. US President Donald Trump is frequently called out for narcissism, for example.

In an interview with HuffPost, Dr. Emma Seppala—a scientific director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education—said: “We think confidence, high self-esteem, dominance and authority make people good leaders, but that is often not the case. Individuals with these traits—also called narcissism—often have big blind spots, don’t work well with others because they are not trustworthy, and have an overconfidence that leads them to make mistakes.”

She reaffirmed: “The best leaders are those who have high emotional intelligence and a values-driven approach: humility, compassion, trustworthiness and empathy.”

So the promise of heightened empathy is certainly alluring at the moment. And while the jury is still out on whether mirroring really is “empathy,” Jones said that, in the context of her own life, MTS is mostly a good thing. Mirror-touch helps her help. “I feel like I always need to help,” she said. “I’m not sure if [MTS] aids the actual act of assisting others, but it certainly helps me know when people need that help in the first place.”

But since she was little, she’s only ever wanted to be things that involve helping people. She shares some examples. Some are trivial, some less so. Say she’s sitting in a room—someone else in the corner is having a conversation they’re less than keen on. “I can pick up on that,” Jones said, laughing. “And sweep in and ‘kidnap’ them.” Say someone is having a panic attack; in many cases, not clear to the outside observer. But Mirror-touch means Jones is alerted to people “spiraling” inside their own heads.

But really, they’re not “big events—it’s just another day, another person” whose feelings she gets dragged into.” When asked about standout times she identified pain, Jones said. “It’s hard to distinguish moments, it’s just a part of my life now.”

What about her wanting to be a psychiatrist, then—could Mirror touch be behind that? “I’m not sure where one thing starts and another ends,” Jones said. But since she was little, she’s only ever wanted to be things that involve helping people. First she wanted to be a vet, then a teacher. Psychiatrist is just the latest vocation. But is that Mirror-touch at work? Jones doesn’t see it as a separate thing. “It’s just a part of me that wants to help people, and that’s a very big part of me.” So maybe it’s all down to Mirror-touch, or maybe it’s “just on top” of her personality.

“Either way,” Jones said—“I’m glad.”

***

Image via Mohamed Hassan

“ONE OF THE ISSUES with studying this,” Ward said, is that people with Mirror-touch rarely realize they have it until they’re adults. And the reason for this is something Jones shared with me: “At the time they didn’t seem odd, not really,” she said. “I still thought it was a thing that everyone had.” This is common, according to Ward . “Most people only discover their mirror-touch as adults, by which I mean that they only become aware of it as a ‘thing’ at that age because of coming across it in an article etc,” he said. “It would always have been around during their youth but not really reflected upon because it seemed entirely normal.  Surely everybody does it, right? Not right.” It’s harder to raise awareness among teens as a result.

For Jones, it still “just feels normal.” Although, when she looks at herself from the eyes of other people, it does seem more “cool,” more “superhuman.” (Jones is quick to point out he irony here—after all, all she ever seems to be doing is experiencing life through other people’s lenses).

When other people hear about it, they’re blown away. Jones uses that to give them a glimpse at life through her eyes. Often, she’ll play a game of “I Spy” with people: “Help me find the person in the room with the stomach-ache?” she’ll ask.“It’s a way of helping other people see the world like I do…Because of MTS, I’m always surveying people…It’s about making others more aware,” she said.

In this way, Mirror Touch is both at its most and least beneficial. Jones is more aware of others, and more aware of how to help them. But Jones can’t ever “tune” out of others’ feelings and sensations. She has to, as Ward said, “Go with the flow.” So life for Jones—and people with MTS—is a careful balance. If they become bombarded with sensations, they have to be alone. But they are also good at making friends, and making people feel like they’re being looked out for.

Jones remembered times last year when she’d often ask a fellow student: “How’s the headache?” The student would look up in surprise, for it was totally unprompted of course.

Featured image by Matteo Di Maio

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Matteo Di Maio
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I'm a Kiwi High School student and freelance journalist. I've written for the Independent, the New European and openDemocracy. I also write a column in my local paper. If you have a story you want teens to hear about, don't hesitate to get in touch at matteodimaio@protonmail.com or on Signal at +64 0204 164 5963. More of my work can be found here: https://matteo-dimaio.wixsite.com/home/about

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