You may have heard of a condition called Synesthesia. It’s been known about for some time and at its simplest level, is a mixing of the senses. The word comes from the Greek words “syn” (together) and “aesthesia” (sensation). It is a conscious experience in which the stimulation of one of the senses results in the feeling of a different one. So for example, some people “see colours” when they think of certain numbers; or they may associate certain tastes with a particular piece of music.
There are four main types of synesthesia, but may be found together in one person, and in fact any of the senses can be involved. The main types of Synesthesia are:
- Colour-grapheme synesthesia – colours are associated with numbers, words or letters
- Sound-colour synesthesia – sounds are associated with colours
- Word-taste synesthesia – words are associated with tastes
- Taste-touch synesthesia – tastes are associated with physical sensations
In some cases, people also associate letters or words with colours and qualities. For example, any given letter of the alphabet could be associated with a colour, and feel “powerful”, or otherwise. Some synesthetes also cite letters, months or days of the week as having three-dimensional qualities.
Mirror-touch synesthesia is another type of synaesthesia, and is believed to be caused in part by a specific type of neurone in the brain, called mirror neurons. These produce an extremely developed sense of emotional empathy. We all have these neurons and they activate for all of us when we perform an activity – that’s how we know that something has touched us – because the neurons in our brains have activated and sent signals to our body telling us so. But to a lesser extent, they also activate when we watch someone else perform an activity – we know someone has probably experienced pain from something because our neurons tell us that experiencing what we’ve just seen would likely cause pain. So for example, many of us will have seen someone get hit by something, and either thought to ourselves, or said aloud, “Ouch, that must have hurt”. We can almost feel the pain, and this is due to our mirror neurons which have activated.
A couple of years ago I was driving home from somewhere or other and was listening to a radio programme in which a particular type of Mirror Synesthesia – called Mirror-Pain Synesthesia, was being discussed. People who have mirror-touch or mirror-pain synesthesia have mirror neurons that are far more active than for most of us, meaning that the effect of the neurons is greatly enhanced. They not only empathise with the pain of others that they see – often it feels to these synesthetes as if the pain is also being applied to them as well. Stories are told of children with mirror-pain synaesthesia who have been genuinely limping for days after witnessing another child at school twist an ankle while playing – they have quite literally felt the pain of the other child as if it had been them being physically injured.
I was fascinated as I listened about this condition and immediately thought of the Atonement. We are taught that Christ literally took upon Himself our pains and sicknesses as well as our sins, and while I had always believed this to be true, hearing about this condition has given me a new appreciation for this element of Christ’s Atonement.
Now let me just say that I don’t suppose in this life we will ever comprehend the mechanism by which Christ was/is able to take upon himself our pains and infirmities – and I’m not suggesting that Mirror-Pain Synesthesia is it. It is probably a fruitless task attempting, with our limited mortal minds, to understand something which is so clearly infinite in scope. But, the title of my blog is “All Things Witness”, and this condition is something of a witness to me – that there are in fact mechanisms in nature by which the pain of one can be felt by another.
Imagine Mirror Pain Synesthesia applied to emotional pain, physical or mental illnesses, the pain from sin or from hurt caused by others. Imagine being able to see inside the soul of someone, and having a condition such that in being able to see the pain they are experiencing, you actually experience the exact same pain they are experiencing. If the condition actually exists for physical pain, it isn’t a great leap, I don’t think, for the same condition to exist for emotional pain. As mortals, of course, we can’t actually see into the souls of others, and therefore we can’t see their pains. For the Saviour, however, that is different. He can and does see into our souls.
As I was pondering this, it occurred to me that as part of the Saviour’s suffering in Gethsemane, He may have had a vision similar to that of Moses. In the Pearl of Great Price we learn that Moses, “beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold…. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not….” (Moses 1:27-28) With a condition in which any and all pain that was seen was actually and literally felt, and with the ability to see into the souls of people to behold pain and suffering and affliction of all kinds, in beholding all of creation, including all of His Father’s children individually – their acts throughout their lives, and into their “souls” – He would have literally felt all of their (our) pains and sicknesses – whatever the cause – one person at a time.
Think of the last time you were hammering a nail and missed, hitting your thumb instead. Well – He felt that – not in a figurative sense, but He literally felt the pain. Think of when you said something you were later ashamed of – how badly you felt. Well, He saw that, and He felt it too. If you’ve ever suffered from depression – real depression where you could see no hope of joy either in mortality or in eternity: He felt that. He literally felt your pain as He saw every act and looked into the soul of every individual during His atoning sacrifice.
I believe that as the Saviour suffered in Gethsemane, the pain He felt wasn’t simply the sum of all pains ever experienced into one gigantic mountain of pain, but that it was personalised pain for each and every one of us. He saw your pain and my pain, and He felt it as if He was the one experiencing your and my life experiences. In a very real way He experienced it all. That means He really does know how you feel; He really does know when you reach your limits; and He really does know how much succor and support each of us needs. And so He understands, in Alma’s words “according to the flesh”, your pains and my pains, and “how to succor His people according to their infirmities” – because He literally felt it all, and overcame it all (see Alma 7:11-13).
How does this help Him alleviate our pain? Well, assuming the scientific understanding of Mirror Pain Synesthesia is in likeness of one part of the Atonement – His feeling our pains – our understanding of this condition doesn’t help explain at all the reverse: how His suffering alleviates our own. Is there some kind of “reverse synaesthesia”, whereby He is able to transfer a small portion of the joy He feels into us as we embrace Him? Is that what it means (or one meaning) to become one with Him in that we are then able to feel as He feels, just as He already feels as we feel? Or is it something completely different? I don’t know. It does mean, of course, that when we take upon ourselves His yoke, He can look across at us and know just how much we are able to bear, and He will adjust the burden accordingly – because He really does know what our capacity is at each moment in time as it varies throughout our lives: He sees into our souls, and knows because He feels as we feel.
Ultimately, or course, we don’t need to understand the scientific mechanisms used by our Father in Heaven or His Son in the Atonement – and in any event our finite minds couldn’t understand them anyway I suspect. The thing we do need is faith that it is real.
But learning of this condition has given me another witness that the Atonement is real in a very literal way, and that the prophets really knew what they were talking about when they wrote down what they did. Indeed, all things bear witness of Him.