Synesthesia is a condition involving cross-wiring in the brain that allow senses to overlap. Dr. Joel Salinas describes his experience with his mirror touch synesthesia. His sight translates into his touch, and he is able to feel the pain from his patients. “If you are gasping for air, I feel it in my body. If you are having a panic attack, I feel it in my body,” says Dr. Salinas, neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Mirror Touch: Notes From a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain. “The vision part of our brain and the touch part of our brain will both activate when we see other people either moving, or being touched, or in pain. And this happens without us knowing.”
While most people may cringe or wince at the sight of a car accident or painful fall, Dr. Salinas says he feels the pain of anyone he sees, including his patients. He shares a story about a patient who was unable to be restrained by her nurses. He came to help, and immediately felt a crushing pain in his chest. When Dr. Salinas realized that this patient was having trouble breathing, he ordered for a specific test to be done which found that she had serious blood clots. While this gift allows him to help his patients in significant, unusual ways, it also may cause him stress, discomfort, and serious pain. The first time he saw a patient die, Dr. Salinas underwent the feeling of death, which he describes as a long-running air conditioner that has gone silent. He had to will himself to breathe again, and has since used small tactics to “ground” himself such as focusing on the feeling of his toes.
Dr. Salinas says he had has mirror-touch synesthesia for as long as he can remember, and that he experiences letter-color synesthesia as well. When he visualizes certain words, each letter will have a distinct color that contributes to its meaning. Dr. Salinas also shares that roughly 4% of all people have some form of synesthesia, and most go on to hold careers in the arts, where their thoughts and feelings are translated into their work. Many well-known musicians are synesthetes, including Billy Joel, Kanye West, and Lorde. It is even suspected that artist Vincent Van Gogh had synesthesia, from how he described his artwork to others.
- Dr. Joel Salinas, neurologist, Massachusetts General Hospital and author, Mirror Touch: Notes From a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain