During part of this research, Banissy ran a study at the Science Museum in London, asking passers-by to fill out questionnaires about their own empathy levels and to take part in tests, during which they were delivered a tap to their cheek while being shown someone else being tapped on a different side of their face.
WATCH: Are You an Empath?
“The idea being that if you have mirror-sense synaesthesia you’re more likely to believe you’re being tapped on both sides of the face,” says Bowling. “These people are going to find it really hard to focus on what they’re actually feeling, and they’re going to get confused and make more errors and be slower to answer about whether they’re being touched.”
What’s new about this research is that it’s not simply relying on self-reported empathy – a critique of some of the empaths in the VICE documentary: their belief that if you call yourself an empath, you must be one. “It’s so difficult to say that one person’s experience is the same as someone else’s, so we wanted to compare people on some sort of task rather than what they describe their perspective as being,” says Bowling.
Interestingly, they found that many people with mirror-touch synaesthesia didn’t even know they had it. “Your brain is integrating everything,” says Bowling. “You’ve got your heartbeat, stomach, touch receptors on your skin, but it’s all put together holistically in your brain. We don’t think about it, really – it’s all going on in the background.” In other words, if you’ve always experienced other people’s sensations as your own from within your own body, how would you know?
The next step in this research, as far as Bowling is concerned, is to look into the issues surrounding a potential blurring of self. “I have a representation of what’s going on in my own body, and I have a representation that that person over there has hurt their arm or whatever, and it’s important for us to be able to switch between those representations in order to empathise,” she explains. “If I’m trying to empathise with somebody, I’m going to focus in on them instead of me, and vice versa in other situations. People that have this condition seem to have difficulty in controlling that move between that person and me, and me and that person.”