Mirror Touch: Rare condition means MGH doctor feels others' pain

BOSTON — Dr. Joel Salina is a doctor of neurology with a rare neurological trait. When he tells patients he can feel their pain, he means it.

Dr. Salinas has mirror touch synesthesia. It's a documented, but rare neurological condition that causes him to feel the physical experiences of other people.

"If they are gasping for air, I feel like I'm gasping for air. If they're having a panic attack, I feel like I'm having a panic attack,” Dr. Salinas explained.

As a doctor, he was worried what people might think. It's only recently that he's been willing to share his story, with the hope other people will take away a deeper sensitivity to someone else's suffering.

“I need people to trust me with patients and to prescribe treatments, I didn't want them to think that there's anything less of me,” he said.

Dr. Salinas is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Mass. General Hospital. He says we all have a bit of this condition.

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“So when we see someone get tackled by a football player or fall and hit their face, that cringe, that ‘ooh!’ face, is that system becoming active,” he explained.

But for Dr. Salinas, the feeling is intense and physical.

"Science is only just starting to understand the phenomenon. For people who have synesthesia, the sense areas of their brain tend to be more wired together," he explained.

Dr. Salinas says scientists believe everyone begins life with the condition.

“We're all born with synesthesia and it goes away around age two as we age, our brain is constantly trimming excess connections,” he said.

The theory is that in 2 out of 100 people, that doesn't happen.

Others with synesthesia can feel overwhelmed, choosing lives of solitude to escape the constant stimulus. But Dr. Salinas believes he has a gift and he pursued medicine because of his ability.

He's hoping to encourage people to be more empathetic to one another, by sharing his story.

“I think it's so important to think about what the world would look like if we didn't just think about what it was like to be in other people's shoes, but to also reflect what it feels like to be in other people's shoes and respond from a truer, more enduring place of compassion and kindness,” Salinas said.

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MIRROR TOUCH: Elizabeth Hopkins talks with Joel Salinas, MD about a rare condition that means he literally feels his patients' pain.

Posted by Boston 25 News on Wednesday, May 24, 2017
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