Feature Image of Dr Joel Salinas sourced from:
Dear Pain Matters readers,
Most doctors and nurses have great empathy and compassion for their pain patients.
Dr Joel Salinas and Megan Pohlmann, a nurse, take empathy to a new level. They literally feel pain, physical sensations and emotions in patients. They have heightened empathy for others that may also be viewed as ’empathy on steroids’, ’empathy in overdrive’ or ‘ultimate empathy’.
Dr Joel Salinas and Megan Pohlmann have mirror touch synesthesia. This is when a person can perceive someone else’s pain or tactile sensation.
For some mirror touch synesthetes, this can be a curse rather than a blessing. These people may require long periods alone after being exposed to other people’s pain and emotions. They may even become recluses in their own homes for fear of ‘sensory overload’.
Others including Dr Joel Salinas and Megan Pohlmann embrace their mirror touch synesthesia as a special gift to help others. These people apply their unique neurological trait in their work and personal life, when appropriate.
Joel Salinas, Neurologist
Joel Salinas (34) is a neurologist, writer, researcher and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. As stated, he can feel pain, physical touch and emotions in other people. This ‘mirrored touch’ ability is automatically triggered by sight. For example, when he sees someone’s right arm being touched, he feels a touch on his left hand, like in a mirror.
In Dr Salinas’ words:
‘[Having mirror touch synesthesia] blurs this boundary between the self and the other’ (Kalter, 2017).
‘[Mirror touch synesthesia] is as close as I can get to literally putting myself ‘in the other person’s shoes” (Salinas, 2017).
‘… Like I’m the reflection … It’s really like I’m a reflection … Mirror touch is … like an automatic, very physical, super empathy …’ (quoted from video, below).
For more insights into Dr Salinas’ ‘super power’, see his TED Talk dated 18 May 2018:
Two interviews with Dr Salinas are also available:
- What It’s Like to Have Mirror Touch Synesthesia (a 4-minute interview dated 13 Dec 2018) (https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/what-its-like-to-have-mirror-touch-synesthesia.html); and
- Mirror Touch: Rare condition means Dr Joel Salinas feels what others feel (a 7-minute interview by Boston 25 News dated 25 May 2017) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDj5Xoi8upQ).
Finally, Dr Salinas is the author of a fascinating book called Mirror Touch: Notes from a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain.
Megan Pohlmann, Nurse
As noted, Megan Pohlmann is a paediatric nurse who has mirror touch synesthesia. This trait often enables her to feel other people’s emotions, pain and other sensations as her own. In her words,
‘If someone’s hurting, for instance, if they have a cut on their arm … when I visualise the injury, I’ll get a feeling on my spine that’s kind of similar to being on a roller coaster. It’s that gut-dropping feeling … the electricity … shoots up my spine and out my arms and my extremities.’
See 7-minute interview called ‘Meet the nurse who feels other people’s pain – literally’.
Please note that Dr Salinas is also featured in this interview, together with Megan Pohlmann.
The Science of Mirror Touch Synesthesia
A study revealed that 45 of 2,351 (2%) psychology students had mirror touch synesthesia (Medina & DePasquale, 2017; University of Delaware, 2017).
Mirror neurons are said to underlie mirror touch synesthesia (Linkovski et al, 2017).
Prof Ramachandran, a respected neuroscientist, nicknamed these mirror neurons ‘Gandhi neurons’or ’empathy neurons’. In his words:
‘… You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet. You’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there [are] whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.’
See TEDIndia by Prof Ramachandran called The neurons that shaped civilization (2009; a 7-minute video):
As noted, Dr Salinas’ ‘mirrored touch’ ability is automatically triggered by sight. For example, when he sees someone’s right arm being touched, he also feels a touch on his own left hand – just like in a mirror.
Could Dr Salina’s experience with mirror touch synesthesia offer certain insight into why mirror therapy may offer relief from phantom limb pain in many amputees?
See my 4 blog posts for further details on mirror therapy including:
This world is lucky to have many doctors, nurses and other medical clinicians who show empathy and compassion for their patients.
The fact that some doctors and nurses can literally feel their patients’ pain may be one of the highest levels of empathy.
Articles and Book
Joel Salinas, Neurologist
(1A) Love, Shayla. The Anatomy of Empathy. Vice (8 May 2019).
(1B) Salinas, Joel. I’m a doctor with a rare neurological condition: I can literally feel your pain. Quartz (30 April 2017).
(1C) Carlton, Lindsay. A doctor who can feel his patient’s pain. Fox News (26 Apr 2018).
This article includes a 7-minute interview with Dr Joel Salinas:
(1D) Ridley, Jane. This doctor can really feel your pain. New York Post (18 April 2017).
(1E) Angley, Natalie. This doctor can feel your pain. CNN (16 June 2017).
(1F) Kalter, Lindsay: This doc can feel your pain. Boston Herald (3 May 2017).
(1G) Salinas, Joel & Lee, Samantha. What It’s Like to Have Mirror Touch Synesthesia. The Cut (13 Dec 2018).
(a 4-minute interview with Dr Joel Salinas dated 13 Dec 2018)
(1H) Mirror Touch: Rare condition means Dr Joel Salinas feels what others feel
(a 7-minute interview with Dr Joel Salinas by Boston 25 News dated 25 May 2017)
A Book by Dr Joel Salinas
(1I) Salinas, Joel. Mirror Touch: Notes from a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain. HarperOne (18 Apr 2017); 320 pages.
Megan Pohlmann, Nurse
(1A) Kelly, Megyn. Meet the nurse who feels other people’s pain – literally. Today (11 April 2018).
(1B) Seaberg, Maureen. Meet the Nurse Whose Superpower Is Feeling Your Pain—Literally. Glamour (1 Mar 2018).
(1C) Nuñez, Gabriella. People You Should Know: Megan Pohlmann and her world of many colors. krcgtv (14 May 2018).
(1A) Linkovski et al. 2017). Mirror Neurons and Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Neuroscientist (April 2017); 23(2): 103-108.
(2A) University of Delaware. ‘I feel for you: Some really do: Researchers examine unusual condition of mirror-touch synesthesia.’ ScienceDaily (6 Feb 2017).
(2B) Medina J & DePasquale C. Influence of the body schema on mirror-touch synesthesia. Cortex (2017); 88: 53.