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Our Cities, Ourselves

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.

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