Six Lessons About Mirror-Touch Synesthesia From Dr. Joel Salinas

A neurologist who can experience others' sensations and emotions shares how he stays "present," and what it's like to lose himself in a movie.
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(Photo: Jessie Essex/Flickr)

(Photo: Jessie Essex/Flickr)

A week ago, we published a profile from our latest print issue, about a doctor with mirror-touch synesthesia. Erika Hayasaki's portrait of Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist who can experience his patients' emotions and sensations, was subsequently covered by Science of Us, Longform, and various other international media outlets. Dr. Salinas' story appears to have resonated with readers, who reacted on Twitter and Facebook with a mixture of fascination, some disbelief, and, in one case, impressive fan art.

We figured you might be curious to know more about the condition that gives Salinas his remarkable abilities. So last Thursday we hosted a Reddit AMA with Salinas, where he shared with us some of the remarkable upsides and downsides he experiences day-to-day, as well as the research behind a condition that, as a medical practitioner, makes his job a bit more challenging—and enriching.

Didn’t catch the AMA? No worries: We've rounded up six of the most salient and compelling points. For the full discussion, head on over to Reddit.

1. SYNESTHESIA EXISTS ON A SPECTRUM

When asked whether he has to see a person experience something to feel a synesthetic, echoed response to the sensation himself, Salinas replied that, for him, mirror-touch synesthesia is predominantly dictated by sight. "That said," Salinas noted, "Synesthesia in and of itself comes in many forms. I actually do have proprioceptive (body position) associations with sounds as well as sensations (particularly on my tongue—perhaps because of the amount of cortex dedicated to tongue movements?)."

In fact, it appears we are all a little synesthetic. Salinas continued,"We all have what’s been speculated to be mirror-neurons that help us to simulate the environment around us internally, particularly with other people—which is where the whole discussion of its potential evolutionary tie with empathy comes out."

2. SYNESTHETES CAN EXPERIENCE SENSATIONS THEY DON’T HAVE THE WORDS TO DEFINE

One sharp reader asked whether synesthesia only causes Salinas to experience sensations that he already has lodged in his memory. Salinas replied that feelings are most salient when they are featured in a vivid personal experience. For instance, when Salinas was a child he pricked his hand on the spines of a palm tree. Ever since, when he sees something that looks like bark or has spines, he experiences intense synesthesia. However, Salinas says he can also feel sensations he can't quite articulate:

New sensations through synesthesia—I would say yes. Yes, because it’s not always a very clean, nameable sensation (spikey, soft, fluffy), which is why it can be so hard to describe sometimes. There just really aren’t that many words that are readily available in my own vocabulary to define it exactly. In the end, though, I’m ultimately forced to try to make sense of it through the filter of my own previous experiences.

3. FEELING OTHER PEOPLE'S EMOTIONS DOES COME WITH SOME UNIQUE PERKS

"It really does also help with learning and memory, random associations (which really help with idea generation and creativity)," Salinas said, "and I found out with some testing in Ramachandran’s lab that my reaction time to mixed sensory stimuli is three times faster than non-synesthetes."

4. IT DOES, HOWEVER, TAKE SOME EXTRA EFFORT TO BE PRESENT

It can take a lot of focus for a synesthetic to remain in the here and now. When a reader asked whether his condition made him feel disassociated, Salinas summarized his personal focus regimen: To keep vivid mirror-touch sensation from consuming all of his focus, for example, Salinas has developed a set of physical cues that direct his attention back to real physical touch. "I’ll often bring my attention to my toes—sort of putting myself back into my own shoes and that really helps me be present," he said.

5. YES, SINCE YOU’RE WONDERING. IT'S KIND OF GREAT TO WATCH SEXUALLY STIMULATING STUFF AS A SYNESTHETE

Several Redditors asked the obvious, and Salinas graciously answered: 

Sensations are certainly much more salient with adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, etc (it’s similar with caffeine)—and it’s even more salient the more similar corresponding parts are. The more corresponding (like-to-like) bodies are, I find that there’s an added dopamine rush almost. Like a bit more of a relief —like scratching an itch that you didn’t realize you had, but are so glad you found it.

On a semi-related note, the way synesthetes process movies is truly unique. Their condition makes them particularly sensitive to film techniques that serve the audience experience: The more effort that's made in the production to immerse the viewer, Salinas says, the less he remembers himself, but instead "become[s] the movie." Movies, then, are less like screen entertainment and more like dreams or virtual reality for someone with acute synesthetic abilities.

6. DR. JOEL SALINAS IS KIND OF A POET

When asked whether he knows if a person is feeling pain or another particular sensation before being able to consciously recognize it (say, if he had just walked into the room, or begun looking at a patient's medical charts), Salinas replied: "It’s usually not the dramatic sensations that are most powerful. It’s more the many many little data points of sensation that come together to form an experience."

And that's probably as good a place as any to end our brief lesson.

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