We’ve all heard of “mother’s intuition” before — that uncanny feeling when a mom just knows something is wrong with her child. But have you ever heard of mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS)? For one Missouri mom, this relatively unknown and exceedingly rare neurological phenomenon means that her mother’s intuition is far more than just a hunch. Megan Pohlmann can physically feel when others are in pain — and it’s a skill that’s led her to help countless others over the years, both as a mother and a nurse.
According to the Scientific American, synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two or more of the five senses get crossed and experienced in uncommon ways for example some people can hear colors and see sounds. Pop culture has long been fascinated with this curious human anomaly and people can even test themselves online. Amazingly, researchers have identified more than 60 subtypes of synesthesia, and have found that 5% of the human population has at least one form.
Pohlmann, a pediatric nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, is part of the 1.6% of the population with “mirror touch” synesthesia, which means she can feel — in great detail — when another person is experiencing physical pain. And while it’s a perplexing and sometimes trying condition to live with, it’s certainly come in handy for her day job, working with babies and children who often cannot speak for themselves.
“I’ve always felt it, but I didn’t know it was a ‘thing’ until about six years ago when I met with synesthesia researchers and they confirmed it,” Pohlmann tells Babble. “I was actually meeting with them to talk about my other types of synesthesia and they confirmed that I was a mirror touch synesthete as well.”
Pohlmann says that it took her a long time to sort through her experiences to better understand exactly how mirror-touch has shaped her, but at 30 years old, she now knows her own experience goes far beyond just being overly sensitive.
“Many people report feeling what others feel and they call themselves ‘empaths,’” Pohlmann explains. “I wasn’t sure if that’s what I was or not since my experiences seemed much more extreme compared to what I was reading about … Since I have many other types of synesthesia, I now understand that something different is happening in my brain.”
Her ability to understand and perceive the pain of others means she actually feels physical sensations throughout her body that clue her into what they’re suffering from.
“I rely on my ‘gut feeling’ constantly, just like every nurse,” Pohlmann explains. “However, my feelings are a little more overwhelming I imagine. I’m beginning to think that there must be many MTSs in the medical field that are like me and it just hasn’t been pointed out to them yet.”
In fact one night, while working in the ER at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Pohlmann says she unexpectedly encountered a fellow MTS while placing an IV on a small baby. Looking back now, she says the moment was illuminating.
“Her sibling was standing behind me with their dad,” recalls Pohlmann. “After a few minutes, I asked the dad to ask the sibling to sit because I was afraid they were going to pass out. They immediately sat and held their head between their legs. After the IV was finished I overheard the sibling tell dad that they could feel the needle going into their hand and that’s why they started to feel sick.”
As a mother, Pohlmann’s mirror-touch can help her suss out the difference between truly feeling sick and “spelling test-iris”, something that all kids seem to suffer from at least once in their youth.
“Believe me, my kiddos can work it but at the same time it’s not so sensitive that I’m a mind reader by any means,” Pohlmann jokes. “Usually if my kids are acting sick when they aren’t, I’m able to tell what kind of extra love they’re needing from me just like any mom. One of the best things about being an MTS mom is that I can feel the love and comfort I give to them bounce right back to me again through them. It’s how I get through tough days at home, and tough days at work.”
For Pohlmann, an important takeaway for her is that empathy is part of a larger language that adults can use to understand and communicate with kids.
“We like to say in pediatrics, that kids aren’t just tiny adults,” explains Pohlmann. “Each child is different when it comes to their personality, age, and developmental level and we take all of that into consideration in all that we do.”
Still, she says most kids aren’t complicated when it comes to empathy. “They understand emotions as a language much better than adults do. Don’t be afraid to listen to them.”
Mirror-touch synesthesia is a truly fascinating condition that researchers are still working to understand. And with so many known yet rare subtypes, it’s entirely possible that all of us know at least someone who possesses that “sixth sense” — something that’s more than just a feeling, but rather a unique way to interact with and understand our big and complicated world.