Mirror touch synesthesia (MTS) describes a rare condition that causes people to mirror sensations they see and then experience emotional and physical touch. For example, feeling pain, to an extent, after seeing someone get hurt.

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This article will discuss mirror-touch synesthesia, including its definition, potential causes, diagnosis, treatment, and general outlook.

MTS is a type of synesthesia that refers to when people experience a blending of two senses or perceptions. Evidence suggests that roughly 2 in 100 individuals may experience MTS.

The term synesthesia is a rough translation of the Greek meaning “senses coming together.” It refers to when the activation of one sense, or part of a sense, triggers another unrelated sense. Health experts may refer to those who experience synesthesia as synesthetes.

People with MTS may perceive a synesthetic experience in the same part, or the opposite part of the body, much like a mirror image. For instance, if someone with MTS were to observe an individual touching their hand, they would feel the same sensation in their hand.

While an individual with MTS mirrors the experiences of others, they typically do not experience them to the same extent. They may feel pain, but it will be to a lesser degree than the other person. Additionally, people with MTS mirror someone else’s feelings, so they will not react until the other individual demonstrates a sensation.

The severity of MTS varies between people — some may also experience a synesthetic response with inanimate objects and humans.

Some individuals may refer to MTS as their brain recreating the sensory experiences of others. As such, some research on MTS surrounds whether people with this type of synesthesia are more empathetic than others. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines empathy as experiencing someone else’s:

  • feelings
  • perceptions
  • thoughts

Some studies suggest that those with MTS experience enhanced empathy, which can cause them to display unselfish behaviors. Similarly, 2018 research indicates that individuals with MTS experience increased emotional reactivity and a better ability to recognize emotions.

However, a 2016 study suggests that MTS does not relate to increased empathy and may instead have an association with some form of autism spectrum disorder. Growing evidence suggests a potential link between forms of synesthesia and autism. Some researchers note that synesthesia is more common in individuals with autism.

Other research suggests that mirror neurons — a type of brain cell — may play a role in the condition. People may respond equally to a person who performs an action and when they witness someone else perform the same action.

Alternatively, a 2015 study proposes that MTS may stem from bodily awareness and a person’s inability to distinguish themself and their experiences from others.

People can discuss their condition with a medical professional to determine a possible cause.

Currently, there are no specific diagnostic criteria for identifying MTS nor any accurate tests to help diagnose the condition. Typically, most people will self-report symptoms.

However, researchers continue to try and develop tests and screening tools that may help with an accurate diagnosis of MTS. A 2018 study involved a series of tests and questionnaires to help establish an MTS score. These tests include videos of a person being touched and seeing how someone watching it may respond. However, more research is necessary to develop more accurate tests.

Some experts suggest that neuroimaging methods, such as MRI scans, may help identify certain types of synesthesia by highlighting activity in certain brain areas. However, a 2018 study indicates that synesthetes — people who experience synesthesia — do not display brain differences that may help understand the condition.

At present, there are no specific treatment methods for managing MTS. Research continues to understand the condition and the best ways to treat it.

Some people may benefit from different forms of therapy, which may help them better process the sensations they experience. For example, health experts may treat MTS similarly to sensory processing conditions. As such, a person with MTS may benefit from occupational therapy, which can help develop purposeful skills and techniques to manage strong sensations.

A doctor may prescribe medications if individuals have another mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Living with MTS should not prevent a person from living a happy and fulfilled life. For some individuals, MTS may help them develop a heightened sense of empathy by being able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. This may give them a greater sense of connection between themselves and others.

However, some may find these sensations overwhelming, leading them to start avoiding daily activities. In these cases, a person should contact their doctor. While researchers are still exploring and understanding the condition, healthcare specialists can help someone manage MTS.

Mirror touch synesthesia is a rare condition and a type of synesthesia. A person with MTS can perceive emotional and physical sensations that occur to others. As such, they mirror the experiences of other people.

Researchers are unsure of the exact cause but believe MTS may relate to empathy or conditions on the autism spectrum disorder. Currently, there are no specific diagnostic criteria or treatment methods for the condition. Some people with MTS may benefit from therapeutic techniques that can help them process these sensations and emotions.