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A unique method of diagnosis: Feel your patient's pain, literally

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Usually, when someone says, "I feel your pain," they're trying to tell you that they understand how you feel. But when Dr. Joel Salinas, M.D. says it, he's being literal. 

Salinas has a condition called mirror-touch synesthesia. This particular subset of synesthesia give him a heightened sense of empathy. So much so, that whatever sensation he can visually register, he feels in his own body as if it's happening to him.

For many with the condition, the sensory overload can be too much to bear. But for Salinas, he's learned how to use it as a tool in his work. And it's helped make him a better physician and a neurologist.

He's written about his experience growing up as a mirror-touch synesthete in his new memoir, "Mirror Touch: Notes From a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain." In it, Salinas explores how synesthesia helps him determine a diagnosis, how it informs his bedside manner, and how being a hyper-empath can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to personal relationships. 

Synesthesia: some people actually SEE music 

If you're gasping for air, I feel like I'm gasping for air. If you're having a panic attack, I feel like I'm having a panic attack. And this all kind of falls under this larger umbrella called synesthesia.

Someone with synesthesia, called a synesthete, might see colors in letter and numbers, taste flavors in sounds, experience shapes and color with sound, and all sorts of other strange and unexpected combinations.

Imaging studies show that synesthete brains have more connectivity essentially between parts of their brain that are responsible for senses. 4 in about 100 people actually have some form of synesthesia but most of them tend to be artists or musicians like Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Tori Amos, Lorde, Skrillex, even Kanye West. 

Mirror-touch in the brain = hyper-empathy

One of the things that brain scientists have discovered is that when we see someone move, or get touched, or are in pain, the vision part of our brain as we see them is active, but so is the touch part of our brain. What ends up happening is essentially a 3-D virtual reality simulation in our heads of the people that we see around us. Kind of like, we're seeing ourselves in a mirror. And so, this mirroring system is believed to have played an integral role in how empathy developed and how we understand the emotion and actions of other people. But, for the two out of 100 people who have mirror-touch synesthesia, the brain areas that are involved in this mirroring system appear to be larger and more active. And what's even weirder – we all have parts of our brain that help us to tell the difference between our physical bodies and the bodies of other people – in mirror-touch synesthetes, those areas seem smaller and less active, so, this mirroring system is hyperactive. It's like the boundary between my physical body and your physical body are blurred.  

Managing sensory input like computer screens

I can't chose when I sense them but how vivid the experience is, is governed by my other brain areas or other brain functions like attention, for example. The way I like to think about it is, if my mind is like a computer desktop, this mirror-touch experience – those physical sensations – are just another window that's open on the desktop. And by drawing my attention away from it, I can minimize that window but the program is still running and affecting all the other processes around it. But if I maximize or restore that window again, it can be right in my face.   

*Quotes edited for clarity and brevity. 

To hear the full interview with Joel Salinas, click on the media player above.