Day 046 - Mirror-touch synaesthesia

Submitted by Sam on 6 July, 2011 - 02:20

The hypothesis that we emphasize with others through a process of simulation enabled by our mirror-neurons is supported by a rare and recently discovered form of synaesthesia called mirror-touch synaesthesia. People with this condition are considered to be hyper-empathetic and actually feel tactile sensations in their own body when observing other humans being touched.

The somatosensory cortex of the brain receives inputs from the body when it is touched, with subregions corresponding to each part of the body becoming active in a systematic response to each stimulus. Neuroimaging studies have shown that people with mirror-touch synaesthesia have a hyperactivated somatosensory cortex when they observe other people being touched, personally feeling the sensation themselves. The synaesthetes' sensations of observed touches are indistinguishable from those produced when they themselves are actually touched, making the usual empathetic simulation a very real reality for them.

Synaesthetes with hyperactive mirror-neurons consistently score higher in questionnaires designed to measure empathy, correlating the relationship between mirror neurons and understanding of others. In her article for the Guardian earlier this year, synaesthete Fiona Torrance described herself as “hugely considerate of other people”, feeling as though she knew “exactly what it feels like to be them”. However, like the people at the other end of the empathetic scale (such as those autism spectrum disorders – a much more common condition), Fiona's extreme level of empathy carries with it a great many difficulties. She has struggled with weight loss through always feeling full by seeing other people eat, constantly crying because she felt someone else's pain, and suffering sleep deprivation as other people's feelings permeate and invade her own.

Fiona's condition gives an insight into the neurological basis for empathy, showing how the wiring of the brain can completely control a person's emotional quotient. The implications are profound, particularly for the criminal-justice system. A hard-wired lack of empathy (or the inverse) would act as a determinate of a person's behaviour that they could be totally unaware of, and helpless to override. How can a compassionate and civilized society punish offenders whose actions are determined, at least in part, by neurological machinery totally outside of their own conscious control?

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