The mystery of people who can feel others being touched

Hands touching in the dark
CC BY 2.0 Josep Ma. Rosell / Flickr

"Super-empaths" can't distinguish between themselves and other people.

Have you ever noticed someone scratching themselves and felt itchy yourself? Something like 30 percent of the population can feel other people's pain; it's fascinating, but pretty normal. What's more unusual is feeling other people being touched.

A new study found that 1-2 percent of people are "super-empaths" who experience "mirror-pain synaesthesia." That means that, when they see someone else being touched, they feel it themselves. People have reported being super-empaths for a while, but this is one of the first studies that backs up this observation. Scientists still don't understand how it works.

In the study, the scientists tapped participants on the cheek while letting them watch someone being tapped on the other cheek. Most people could tell the difference between whether they were being tapped or watching others get tapped ... Except for these super-empaths.

"The idea being that if you have mirror-sense synaesthesia you're more likely to believe you're being tapped on both sides of the face," said Dr. Natalie Bowling, one of the scientists who worked on the study. "These people are going to find it really hard to focus on what they’re actually feeling, and they’re going to get confused and make more errors and be slower to answer about whether they’re being touched."

Lots of people didn't even know they had this sixth sense.

"Your brain is integrating everything," Bowling went on. "You've got your heartbeat, stomach, touch receptors on your skin, but it's all put together holistically in your brain. We don’t think about it, really – it's all going on in the background."

Knowing these super-empaths exist is fun, but it also made me rethink people in my life. My Mom, for instance, suffers when she sees someone suffering on television. My Dad and I used to joke about it, but now I can't help wondering if she might just posess an extra ability to literally feel the pain of others. I'm not saying she's a super-empath or anything ... Just that this supposed weakness of empathy might be a strength, one more real than we imagined.

And it makes me wonder about people who seem to feel the pain of other species. I think a lot of treehuggers feel a visceral kind of pain when they see someone chop down a tree. When I hear about species going extinct, it doesn't just bother me on a "Oh no, we are losing scientific biodiversity" level. I also imagine being a member of the disappearing species.

What do you think? Do environmentalists feel less of a distinction between themselves and other life forms?

The mystery of people who can feel others being touched
"Super-empaths" can't distinguish between themselves and other people.

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