For this week’s in-class “NeuroSlam” I spoke about a paper on mirror-touch synesthesia– a condition in which an individual reports feeling an actual tactile sensation in response to seeing someone else touched. For example, this synesthete would feel as if someone touched their arm if they saw someone touching another’s arm. Inspired by an fMRI of a mirror-touch synesthete that showed hyperactivity of mirror-touch network neurons (mirror neurons we all have in the somatosensory cortex, premotor cortex, and parts of the temporal lobe that fire in response to touch and viewing touch), researchers Micheal J Banissy and Jamie Ward wanted to study empathy in mirror-touch synesthetes as empathy is believed to be related to mirror neurons.
In addition to providing evidence for mirror-touch synesthetes experiencing a synesthesia very similar to actual touch, Banissy and Ward measured empathy in these individuals using a psychological test. They reported that synesthetes scored much higher in the “emotional reactivity” subset of the empathy quotient but not in “cognitive empathy” or “social skills.” This supports the theory that mirror neurons do play a role in empathy as well as the idea that empathy is a complex neurological process that can’t be be wholly described in one neural network.
Banissy, M.J., Ward, J. Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy. Nature Neuroscience 10, 815 – 816 (2007)
Published online: 17 June 2007 | doi:10.1038/nn1926