Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia Is Not Associated with Heightened Empathy, and Can Occur with Autism.

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Robson, Emma 
Lai, Meng-Chuan 

Research has linked Mirror-Touch (MT) synaesthesia with enhanced empathy. We test the largest sample of MT synaesthetes to date to examine two claims that have been previously made: that MT synaesthetes (1) have superior empathy; and (2) only ever experience their MT synaesthesia in response to viewing a person being touched. Given that autism has been suggested to involve deficits in cognitive empathy, we also test two predictions: that MT synaesthetes should (3) be less likely than general population individuals without MT synaesthesia to have an autism spectrum condition (ASC), if MT is characterized by superior empathy; and (4) have fewer autistic traits. We selected three groups: a pure MT synaesthesia group (N = 46), a pure grapheme-colour (GC) synaesthesia group (N = 36), and a typical control group without synaesthesia (N = 46). Participants took three measures of empathy and one measure of autistic traits. MT synaesthetes did not show enhanced empathy. In addition, 30% of all MT synaesthetes recruited into this study (N = 135) reported also having ASC, and MT synaesthetes showed higher autistic trait scores than controls. Finally, some MT experiences were reported in response to viewing objects being touched. Our findings dispute the views that MT synaesthesia is linked with enhanced empathy, is less likely to occur with ASC or elevated autistic traits, and is specific to seeing a person being touched.

Adolescent, Adult, Aged, Aged, 80 and over, Autistic Disorder, Case-Control Studies, Emotions, Empathy, Female, Humans, Internet, Male, Middle Aged, Perceptual Disorders, Photic Stimulation, Reaction Time, Self Report, Social Skills, Surveys and Questionnaires, Synesthesia, Young Adult
Journal Title
PLoS One
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Public Library of Science (PLoS)
Medical Research Council (G0600977)
National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) (via Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT) (unknown)
European Commission (studentship), Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, Autism Research Trust,National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellowship, Wolfson College Cambridge, O’Brien Scholars Program within the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada