Meet a Doctor With the Almost-Superpower of Mirror-Touch Synesthesia

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Patient and doctor shaking hands
Photo: Walker and Walker/(c) Walker and Walker

People with mirror-touch synesthesia feel what other people are feeling — a tickle, a punch, an injection. The condition exists with various degrees of intensity, but at the more severe end it can be debilitating, with sufferers simply unable to expose themselves to the full experience of the world, given that they will likely see — and feel — a lot of people getting hurt.

It’s a fascinating condition to begin with, but only more so when you consider the idea of a doctor — that is, someone whose job calls on them to, in effect, “feel” the pain of others — having it. Pacific Standard has a profile of one such doctor, Joel Salinas, and it’s fascinating.

For Salinas, a 33-year-old in the Harvard Neurology Residency Program, empathy is not an issue:

As a neurologist, not only is he far better equipped than most people to understand the peculiarities of his own brain, but he also exposes himself daily to immense doses of other people’s pain and discomfort. His patients suffer from strokes, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, and a myriad of other disorders and injuries. Some are also depressed, anxious, or in extreme pain. When Salinas performs a spinal tap on a patient, he can feel the needle going into his own lower back. When a psychotic patient goes into a rage, Salinas feels himself getting worked up. Even when patients die, Salinas feels an involuntary glimmer of the event firsthand. His body starts to feel vacant—empty, like a limp balloon.

And then he moves on to the next patient.

Salinas “also sees letters and numbers in colors, a condition known as grapheme-color synesthesia. Furthermore, he associates these colored characters with personality traits and feelings.” These abilities allow him to experience his patients and their conditions in a way most doctors simply can’t.

It’s a fascinating story, and you should read it.