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Cogn Neurosci. 2015;6(2-3):118-33. doi: 10.1080/17588928.2015.1042444. Epub 2015 May 13.

Explaining mirror-touch synesthesia.

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a School of Psychology , University of Sussex , Brighton , UK.


Mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS) is the conscious experience of tactile sensations induced by seeing someone else touched. This paper considers two different, although not mutually exclusive, theoretical explanations and, in the final section, considers the relation between MTS and other forms of synesthesia and also other kinds of vicarious perception (e.g., contagious yawning). The Threshold Theory explains MTS in terms of hyper-activity within a mirror system for touch and/or pain. This offers a good account for some of the evidence (e.g., from fMRI) but fails to explain the whole pattern (e.g., structural brain differences outside of this system; performance on some tests of social cognition). The Self-Other Theory explains MTS in terms of disturbances in the ability to distinguish the self from others. This can be construed in terms of over-extension of the bodily self in to others, or as difficulties in the control of body-based self-other representations. In this account, MTS is a symptom of a broader cognitive profile. We suggest this meets the criteria for synesthesia, despite the proximal causal mechanisms remaining largely unknown, and that the tendency to localize vicarious sensory experiences distinguishes it from other kinds of seemingly related phenomena (e.g., non-localized affective responses to observing pain).


Mirror systems; Mirror-touch; Pain; Phantom limb; Social neuroscience; Synesthesia/synesthesia

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