What You Should Know About Mirror Touch Synesthesia

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Mirror touch synesthesia (MTS) is a condition that causes a person to feel sensations when they witness another person being touched. For instance, a person with this condition might feel the pain of a slap if they see someone else get slapped. MTS is a rare condition. Some research shows that only around 2 in 100 people have the condition.

MTS is just one form of various kinds of synesthesias. Synesthesia occurs when one sense can stimulate a feeling from another one of your senses.

For example, other forms of synesthesia include:

  • Hearing colors that you see
  • Being able to taste things that you can touch

Living with MTS doesn’t mean you’ll experience the sensations the same way the person you are mirroring will. For instance, if you see a person get burned by a fire, you might experience what feels like pain but not to the extent of the person who was burned. You also won't get burned.

MTS causes you to mirror the person’s feelings. So if a person doesn’t react to pain despite feeling physical pain, then neither will you. However, if they suddenly burst into tears, you will likely follow suit. 

Some researchers think that people with MTS can also feel the emotions of others they witness. For instance, if someone around them is exhibiting signs of sadness or anxiety, they’ll also feel it. However, MTS is much more complicated than simply empathizing with other people or feeling such strong emotions for them that you think you can feel their pain.

Mirror Touch Synesthesia Symptoms

A defining symptom marks MTS: feeling the sensation when you see another person be touched. However, the way people experience this sensation varies from person to person.

A person with MTS may:

  • Feel a sensation on their own hand if they see someone else touch another person's hand
  • Feel a sensation on their face if they see someone else brush their hand on another person's cheek

Identifying Mirror Touch Synesthesia 

Research shows that neuroimaging methods such as MRIs can help identify specific types of synesthesias. The study showed that in people with this condition, there is more activity in certain parts of their brain than in people without the disorder.

There are no specific diagnostic criteria for identifying MTS. Rather, you’ll be studied to see how you react when watching another person be touched or use their feelings of touch.

In 2017, a group of researchers developed a new screening tool for MTS. The process involved a series of tests and questionnaires to establish an MTS score which would be used to assess whether or not a person had the condition. 

Causes of Mirror Touch Synesthesia 

It’s not clear what exactly causes mirror-touch synesthesia. What is established, however, is that your brain seems to be mixing up your sense of touch and your visual sense.

Sensory Receptors Become Hyperactive

In some people with the condition, the parts of their body known as sensory receptors, which control how they receive and interpret sensations, become hyperactive. Hyperconnectivity of the neurons in your brain that governs these sensory receptors has also been linked to the development of MTS.

Autism May Be Linked to MTS

Certain neurodevelopmental disorders have been connected to the development of MTS. In a 2016 study, researchers found that people with autism were more likely to have the condition. Thirty percent of the participants in the study who had MTS were also found to have autism.

Is MTS a Result of Having Too Much Empathy?

Feeling empathy is an experience that is different from MTS. For starters, MTS is involuntary. Try as they might, people with the condition cannot turn off their feelings, and in specific scenarios, this can be debilitating.

Some researchers believe that people with the condition simply have higher levels of empathy than the average person. However, in a 2016 study, some researchers found that MTS was not connected to empathy. They concluded that MTS only occurs when a person views another person being touched. 

Types of Mirror Touch Synesthesia

There are two main sub-types of mirror-touch synesthesia. Both sub-types feature people experiencing sensations when they witness another person being touched.

The sub-types are:  

  1. Mirroring: The most common sub-type is mirroring. With mirroring, you experience the sensations as if you are looking in a mirror. For instance, if you witness someone touching the left side of their face, you’ll feel it on the right side. 
  2. Anatomical: On the other hand, some people experience MTS anatomically. This is a far less common occurrence than people who mirror. When you experience sensations anatomically, you experience the sensations on the same side as the person you are looking at. For instance, if the person you are looking at has their left hand punched, you’ll also feel the pain in your left hand. 

Mirror Touch Synesthesia Treatment

Treatment for this condition follows no specific methods. There is ongoing research into understanding how the disorder works and, in turn, the best ways to treat it. Where MTS co-occurs with mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression, your doctor might prescribe medication to help you cope with symptoms of that condition. 

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.