One afternoon, as a child out for a walk with my mother, I stepped on a bee. She assumed I’d done it deliberately, and perhaps I had. I was very young. I can’t remember. But I can remember how I felt when she asked me to imagine what the bee must have experienced when I trod on it. At my tender age of no more than 4 or 5, I don’t supposed I’d often been obliged to think of anyone or thing but myself. Invited to see the world from the bee’s perspective, I was so upset by my callousness, I cried all the way home.
Years later, when I told this story to psychologist, he said my mother had been cruel to upset me so and risked scarring me for life. What twaddle, I replied. All my mother had done was teach me a lesson in empathy. I might have been justified to resent the afternoon naps she forced to take, but I could never resent that she opened my eyes about the importance of compassion.
For some people, empathy is more than an emotion, as mine had been with the bee. For them it’s a physical experience as well — a form of synethesia, where the body is wired to collect information physically as well as emotionally. Another form of synethesia occurs when some people see numbers as colors or busts of music. Of those who experience synethesia, 1.6% literally feel the pain of others though not to the same degree. It’s called mirror-touch synethesia.
Joel Salinas, a doctor in the Harvard Neurology Residency Program is a person with mirror-touch synethesia. (“He knows just how you feel,” Excerpted from Pacific Standard in The Week, September 2015 pgs. 36-37. ) As a physician, he has learned to control his response to patients by focusing his thoughts and permitting the sensations he experiences to pass through him rather than allowing them to take hold. Others who have not learned to control the experience can be debilitated by it. (Ibid pg. 27)
The cause of this condition, like all forms of synethesia, seems to come from having a greater amount of gray matter in areas of the brain linked to social cognition and less brain matter in the temporal junction where the brain distinguishes the self from others. (Ibid, pg 37) In the case of Dr. Salinas, he feels his ability makes him a better physician. He may be right as doctors can become hardened to suffering, which is why some hospitals have “taken to offering doctors modified classes in art appreciation in an attempt to revive their atrophying skills of pattern recognition and awareness.” (Ibid pg. 37.)
Science fiction has long played with the notion empathy. One episode of the original Star Trek, for example, devoted an entire episode on the destructive and positive force of empathy. (Click) Perhaps my experience with a bee all those years ago is the reason that episode is one of my favorites.
(Originally posted 11/9/2015)