"It would be really weird not have it," says Dr. Joel Salinas, who has mirror-touch synesthesia

By Caitlin Keating
Updated July 30, 2015 12:05 PM

A Boston doctor was born with a skill that he never could have learned in medical school.

Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, can actually physically feel his patients’ pain.

Salinas has a rare condition called mirror-touch synesthesia, which has allowed him to physically feel the pain of others since he was a child. The condition, which is believed to affect one to two percent of the population, makes people experience several senses at the same time.

“When I see people, I have a sensation of whatever touches their body on my own body as well and it’s kind of reflected as a mirror,” he told CBS.

For some, the amount of empathy and physical pain they can feel from others is overpowering.

“They’re kind of crushed by those sensations because it’s too much and it’s overwhelming,” he said. “They develop issues with anxiety and depression and essentially become shut-ins at times.”

“When I was a kid, having these experiences where I would see someone hug, I would feel the hug on myself or if I would see someone get hit, I felt the sensation on me as well,” he said.

Salinas recalled a time during medical school when a patient’s arm had to be amputated from an accident.

“I remember feeling as though my arm was dismembered and I could feel the blood,” he said.

But the condition has only helped Salinas relate to his patients.

“I think it’s empowered me to really connect with my patients,” he says. “There’s a wall that’s torn down when you feel a lot of the sensations that your patients feel as well. It’s like being aggressively put in somebody else’s shoes.”