Dr. Joel Salinas suffers from a condition called mirror-touch synesthesia. As a result of this condition, whenever Salinas sees someone experience pain or even touches another person, his brain recreates the same sensations in his own body. Salinas, a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, has been using his condition to better understand his patients.
Joel Salinas was in his third year of medical college when he experienced something weird. He saw a man having cardiac arrest and immediately the same happened to Salinas. Salinas was on the floor with pain and there were compressions on his chest. He says, “Someone had a cardiac arrest and it completely caught me off guard. I saw them getting chest compressions and I could feel my back on the linoleum floor and the compressions on my own chest. I felt the breathing tube scraping down the back of my throat.” When the patient died, Salinas experienced a mysterious silence.
What happened to Salinas was because of a condition called “synesthesia.” In this condition, people’s senses are merged with each other. For example, if people with synesthesia hear music, then they perceive taste as well. Or they might see colors while reading letters or numbers. In case of Salinas, he perceives feelings when he sees someone or touches them. His body recreates the exact sensations of the person he is looking at. Salinas would later learn that his condition is a new type of synesthesia known as “mirror-touch.” The body mirrors what Salinas witnesses or feels the same as the person he touches.
During his childhood, Salinas had difficulty adjusting to a normal school environment. He remembers that during primary school, he would perceive ringing of the bell as blue. While writing, his Bs had to be the right shade of orange. He even saw colors while writing numbers. Moreover, he found it difficult to grasp the concepts of mathematics. In his words, “My two was a red maternal person and my four was a blue friendly person. So how could a two plus a two equal a four?”
But there was a positive side to this too. His associations of colors with letters worked like a charm when it came to spellings and vocabulary. In his 2017 book, Mirror Touch: A Memoir of Synesthesia and the Secret Life of the Brain, he says that he loved hugging people when he was young. It gave him comfort and made him feel secure. But as his hugging actions were thought to be weird by other kids, Salinas was left all alone by himself. He went deeper into his own world. His only friend was the TV and he got the same comfort and happy feeling while watching cartoons.
As Salinas grew up, he realized that helping others made him feel better. When people around him were happy, he was happy too. He thought that “healing people” was his calling and chose a career in medicine.
Salinas has never talked openly with anyone about his condition. He actually never considered it as a condition. He didn’t feel different from anyone and thought that maybe this is how everyone else feels. But in 2005, while on a college trip to India, Salinas’s view about himself would change forever. During the trip, one of the students talked about some people who saw colors when reading letters and numbers. Salinas told the student that was the case for all people. “He looked at me and said: ‘That’s absolutely not the case for everyone,’ ” Salinas says. Salinas finally understood how different he was from others.
Upon visiting the expert neurologist, Dr. V S Ramachandran, Salinas also found out that his condition was a new type of synesthesia. Known as mirror-touch, it recreates the exact same things that the person opposite to Salinas is feeling.
But this didn’t help him to get ready for what was to come in his medical career. His condition was at the peak when Salinas began to witness the extremes of physical trauma. He felt the sufferings of the patients. In the operation theatre, he felt as if the incision was being cut into his own abdomen. Things really got out of hand when one day he saw a person die and found himself vomiting.
This made him realize that he had to come up with coping strategies if he wished to survive as a doctor. “I focused looking at a patient’s sleeve or collar, or on grounding myself in my own body,” he says.
Some new facts have come to light based on a recent study of babies. The study found that babies associate different shapes with different colors. But as they grow and their brains develop, such connections are deemed unnecessary by the brain and are removed. This process is known as “pruning.” This has made scientists suggest that maybe each one of us is born with synesthesia. While in most of us, synesthesia is removed due to pruning, in some people, pruning doesn’t take place to the same extent. This might be the reason the connections stay forever.
It would be incorrect to call this condition a disorder. Now, a successful neurologist at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Joel Salinas, believes that his success can be attributed to synesthesia. He says, “I couldn’t imagine my life without synesthesia. I wouldn’t be who I am now without it.” Being able to deeply understand his patients’ feelings, Salinas has turned out a better and caring doctor.