The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Empathically Enhanced?

I came across this while doing research for a project I’m working on. Apparently scientists are tracing the roots of empathy, and have come across some people who are apparently empathically enhanced.

When people say “I feel your pain,” they do not mean it literally, but certain people really do feel something that appears to be an extreme form of empathy, British researchers said.

They said watching someone being touched triggers the same part of the brain as actual touch, and this connection helps explain how we understand what other people are feeling.

People who experience a tactile sense of touch when they see another person being touched — something called mirror-touch synesthesia — was first studied in 2005 in one person.

But researchers at University College London have now studied 10 people with the same condition.

… One of the mirror-touch subjects in the study said the experience is all she has ever known.

“It is — to me at least — a perfectly normal response to seeing touch or pain inflicted on another person,” she said in a statement.

The researchers are studying this empathy connection further and trying to determine how prevalent mirror-touch synesthesia is.

“It does appear to be more common than we first thought,” Banissy said.

Perfectly normal experience? That kind of made me wonder about something.

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Are these people empathically enhanced or are the rest of us empathically impaired? Is it these people who are normal or the rest of us who are deficient? How would our culture be different if we all had part of our brain triggered in a way that made us experience violence we see visited upon someone else. How humiliation? How would out culture change if when we saw those things we actually experienced them ourselves.

Yesterday, while downtown waiting for a traffic light to change, I heard a woman screaming. She screamed for several minutes, with greater urgency each time. I looked around, and there were several people looking in the direction of the screaming, as though trying to figure out what was happening, but nobody was moving. I ran across the street. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but it sounded like this woman was in trouble and nobody was moving to help, except the three women across the street from me, whom I saw flag down a police car.

The story, as I got it from others who’d witnessed it, was that the woman was screaming because another woman was pulling her hair. I’m not sure what preceded the hair-pulling, but I was perplexed by what I saw. I saw one distraught woman trying to explain to the police what had happened. I saw the other, smiling woman, make her way to a bus that had just pulled up, and then she boarded it. I saw at least a couple of the police laughing at the whole situation, while the distraught woman ran to the bus and tried to make the driver wait so the police could take the other woman off the bus. For Whatever reason, the police did not or could not detain the other woman. So the bus pulled off and the distraught woman, who for all I know had been assaulted, stood there in tears watching the bus drive away. The crowd dispersed, Me included.

But I kind of wondered why nobody moved. (Later, when I told the hubby the story, he gently admonished me about rushing into an unknown situation. He had a point. The other woman could have been armed, and he wasn’t keen on the idea of his husband “dying a heroes death.”) I kind of wondered why people laughed.

So, have we become that inured to one another’s pain? Have we become so numb that we can no longer feel or even imagine what others are feeling?

Would we be able to shrug off someone being raped if we weren’t numb? Would we be able to step over someone who’s bleeding to death if we weren’t numbed?

I don’t have answers. Just more questions. Like: are these people the end or the beginning of a trend? Are we slowly evolving a deeper sense of empathy? Or are we slowly losing the ability to empathize?

Is this an adaptation or a mutation?


  1. Octavia Butler’s heroine in ‘Parable of the Sower’ and ‘Parable of the Talents’ is an empath. These dark but hopeful tales suggest the transformation that happens when those who are unable to inure themselves to barbarism are small in number, and we fail to revere the stories they tell us about who we are.

  2. I wonder how this relates to the Highly Sensitive Person, something I’ve been interested in for a few years. As someone who is very much affected by external sensors, I can say it’s not all wine and roses. The physical sensations I feel when I see someone being hurt are odd at best. It’s taken me years to even realize I was aware of these happenings. You’ve brought up some great questions for a discussion that I hope continues to take place. I, for one, would love to have some answers.