When Empathy Goes Awry : Mirror Touch Synesthesia

How do we come to understand another person’s emotions?

Within our brain are a cluster of nerve cells that scientists call “mirror neurons.” These cells and circuits turn on and develop when, as infants and toddlers, our primary caregivers express on their own faces what they sense in us. We are wailing because we are in pain? A caring parent has some of that same suffering in their facial expressions. We laugh and smile when we begin to recognize our mother’s face, and our mother smiles and laughs with us. This is how the human baby begins the long process of understand the self, what s/he is experiencing, and who others are, and what they are experiencing.

Most human beings have adequate care as children; their caregivers give more or less consistent emotional feedback to them day-to-day, and the emotional skills of knowing how we feel and how other might be feeling develop naturally. Those children who suffer early life deprivation (e.g., orphans in mass care settings, like those in China) may never completely catch up with their peers who were raised in small family groups. Others, who may have the terrible fortune to be born to uncaring, chemically addicted or violent parents, will suffer personality changes that will hamper their natural capacity to feel their own emotions and care about others for the rest of their lives. Those early life experiences of caring, love and emotion are that important to normal human development.

But that is the normal or mainstream human experience of noticing emotion in others, understanding what they might be feeling, and sharing human experience. What if those mirror neurons don’t stop developing? What if those experiences of feeling another person’s pain actually become your own body feeling not your own emotions, but those of people you see and feel?

That is the extremely rare and the terrible lost-self experience of those with Mirror Touch Synesthesia. These folks have mirror neuron circuits that in some mysterious way over-developed. Out among people, they “catch” the emotional experiences of others in such deep ways that it is hard for them to know what is their own emotion and not the experience of others. This disorder seems to run in families, and has the capacity to ruin not only individual experience, but the relationships that person tries to maintain.

Want to hear more, including an interview with a woman who suffers from MTS? The new NPR podcast “Invisibilia” just included a story on this phenomenon — here’s the link for the January 29, 2015 broadcast:

http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia

It’s fascinating, and disturbing. As it turns out, helpful empathy, the kind we want our parents, friends, teachers, chaplains and therapists to cultivate in themselves, has normal limits. None of us, it turns out, wants to so inhabit the emotional lives of others that we don’t know exactly what it is we are feeling. Because what we feel is the center of who we are.