It was during a rare trip to a fast food restaurant that I, an 11-year-old, asked my mother if she ever tried to send telepathic comfort to people who seemed sad. I was referring to the beleaguered-looking cashier, and it was occurring to me for the first time that it might be abnormal to be shaken up by the real or imagined plight of this employee, who was performing what looked to me like thankless servitude. What was revealing itself was what I have started calling “hyperactive empathy.” Though it began adorably in childhood as a penchant for expressing sympathy to the pained, injured or unhappy around me, it grew into something somewhat debilitating. Empathy is a powerful thing. It takes imagination, compassion, intuition. It is one of the most important tools we use in navigating complex human interactions and too much, or too little, can break a person.
Invisibilia, a new podcast from NPR pros Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, is a series that looks at the unseen forces acting on the world around us. A recent episode chronicled the struggle of a woman using the pseudonym “Amanda,” who physically feels everything experienced by those around her. If you eat in front of Amanda, she feels the (apparently unpleasant) sensation of having food shoved in her mouth. When you stub your toe, she feels the same stabbing pain. This phenomenon is actually called Mirror Touch Synesthesia and like the synesthesia that causes some people to see numbers as colors, it is a type of cross-wiring in the brain. When someone like Amanda sees a hug or a slap, her brain activates the same touch centers it would if she herself were hugged or slapped. Pain and sensation are the result of neurological signals, so these mirror sensations are not necessarily less “real” than experienced ones.
The symptoms are not all physical, though this aspect of Mirror Touch is perhaps the most shocking to an outsider. Amanda also reacts to the emotional pain and discomfort of those around her, so she acts as a self-described “chameleon,” disappearing into the lives of the confident or calming. This coping mechanism not only wreaks havoc on her personal relationships as she moves from identity to identity, it also leaves her without much of an identity of her own. This phenomenon is actually documented, as people with conditions like Amanda’s have less gray matter in the areas that distinguish self from other. Amanda and her family speak of both the obvious and the nuanced aspects of being a family full of feel-ers. Mirror Touch Synesthesia runs in families, creating a fascinating and heartbreaking dynamic of people trying to love each other at just enough distance to still be individuals, to still be functioning.
At one point, Spiegel asks, “How do you live when just a trip to the grocery store involves getting intimately entangled with everyone you see?” This question reminds me of my own discomfort in grocery stores, with their disorienting over-saturation of suffering stimuli. Sometimes the weight of the collective emotional baggage of a warehouse-sized microcosm just isn’t worth a box of pancake mix.
Amanda’s story is both cautionary and educational. There is much to be learned from anomalous empathy like Mirror Touch, the forces that instruct us when to distinguish self from other and how to find a healthy balance of these forces. Personally, I hope someday to see an old man run after a bus he will surely miss and go about my day.
Image by dogulove, licensed under Creative Commons.