Obviously the idea of someone feeling the interiority of another human being sounds a little more David Icke than Attenborough, which isn’t helped by the fact that scientific backing for these claims has been thin on the ground. In fact, we don’t even know much about the neurology behind empathy generally. Researchers have basic ideas and are fairly certain about which particular brain regions are involved, but this is very much a new area of study.
However, new research supports the existence of empaths, finding that between 1 to 2 percent of the population report experiencing this condition. The work has been carried out by Dr Michael Banissy, a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, and his post-doctoral researcher, Dr Natalie Bowling, who spent years looking into empathy and, more specifically, mirror-touch synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia occurs when normally distinct senses are blurred together. Some people can “hear” colours, “see” sounds or “taste” words. In the case of mirror-touch synaesthesia, sight and touch overlap to the extent that if a synaesthete sees someone being touched on the face, they feel it on their own face.
Mirror-pain synaesthesia is a far more common and relatable experience – someone scratching all over and you suddenly feeling itchy, for instance (Bowling says that around 30 percent of the population experiences this). But it’s mirror-touch – that trait of being able to “feel” the feelings of others – that is rare enough to be an alien concept to 98 to 99 percent of the population.