Imagine being incapable of laughing at the misfortune of others

In the past, I believe I’ve mentioned mirror neurons: brain cells that activate when you watch someone perform an activity. For example, if you watch someone throw a football, mirror neurons in the areas of your brain responsible for moving your muscles might activate giving you a vague vicarious sense of throwing the football.

Mirror neurons are (presumed to be) involved in empathy. I, of course, am frequently arguing that emotions are nothing more than physical sensations. I would posit that when you see someone sobbing, mirror neurons again allow you to vicariously experience a muted sense of that person’s body state and thus understand how they feel.

Now, one of the characteristics of autism is a lack of empathy; indeed, some autistics seem incapable of understanding that their fellow humans are independent beings with wills and emotions. And, not surprisingly, a popular explanation for autism links the condition to a lack of development of mirror neurons

But is there a flipside to this? Are there people whose mirror neurons are so developed that they can literally feel other people’s sensations? Indeed there are:

An unknown number of people have mirror-touch synesthesia, a condition that causes them to feel the touches that they see others receive. For example, if a mirror-touch synesthete sees someone touched on the cheek, she will feel as if her own cheek has been touched.

Like the name implies, there is a mirror effect involved. Say a mirror-touch synesthete is standing opposite someone. If the non-synesthete is hit in the right arm, the synesthete will feel it in her left arm. If the two are standing next to each other, contact with the non-synesthete’s right arm will be felt in the synesthete’s right arm.

Besides feeling the pain and touches of others, mirror-touch synesthetes often are very in touch with the feelings of others. Many claim no understanding of how people can laugh at others’ misfortune, and action and horror movies are too unbearable to watch.

What a curse this condition must be live with. Imagine being incapable of laughing at a blind man walking into an oncoming bus, or baby stroller racing down a hill into a wild animal park, or a octogenarian tripping and falling into an open volcano. It would be as if the very essence of being alive disappeared.

4 Responses to “Imagine being incapable of laughing at the misfortune of others”


  1. Wil

    Weirdly, I just experienced the sensation myself. I was watching the remake of “piranha” and there’s a scene where a girl steps on a piece of broken glass in the water. I felt a sensation in my foot — not pain — more like a kind of electrical jolt.

    Interestingly, I’ve heard that we can only respond to types of pain that we ourselves have experienced. For example, if we see someone getting a paper cut on their thumb, we feel it, because we’ve all felt that. Whereas if we see someone get their hair caught in a outboard motor engine and have their face pulled off — as I did in “piranha” — we don’t really respond because we’ve never had that experience.

  2. John Saleeby

    Well, I had that happen to me just this weekend and I won’t be seeing “Piranha”.

    Are there any Movies where a guy falls into a vat of molten metal? Cause I don’t want to see them.

  3. John Saleeby

    Hey, why don’t they just leave Charlie Sheen the fuck alone? I say we start up a nation wide grass roots movement in support of this Champion Of American Manhood.

    I blame Alan Alda!!

  4. Groove on my elephant brothers at My So-Called Penis

    [...] add a further level to this. Scientists have theorized about the existence of what are called mirror neurons – brain neurons that fire both when we perform an activity and when we watch someone else [...]