The doctor who can literally feel other people’s pain

As a teenager he was an outsider. He finally found a friend to attach himself to, a nerd just like himself who liked anime and other geeky stuff, who would have lunch every day with two other boys. Salinas joined their group and found that by mimicking them and the kind of things they talked about and laughed at, he had found a way of being. 

He was puzzled that they chose a different place to eat every day but he sought them out nonetheless and they accepted him, and they are still friends today – but years later told him they’d moved their lunch group every day in order to avoid him, and had nicknamed him ‘the joke killer’.

Salinas persisted with life, excelled at school, and read biology at Cornell University. While there he joined a trip to Brazil to study an indigenous tribe and their methods of healing and decided to become a doctor. He went to the Miami school of medicine, followed by four years at Harvard, where he studied neurology.

It was on a research trip in India, as a first year medical student, that he first learnt the term synesthesia. 

He had no idea that his experiences were any different from other people’s until one night, in Gujarat, a fellow student mentioned a group of people who had ‘blended senses’ – recognising colours in letters and sounds. 

Salinas thought it was odd that he should mention something so ordinary, so obvious, and later asked, ‘Isn’t that the case for everyone?’

The student looked at him askance and said, ‘No, not at all.’

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

It was the first clue that something was different about him. He researched the condition thoroughly and discovered all the different types of synesthesia, and in 2008 he went to a clinic in San Diego where he met the neurologist VS Ramachandran, who had a graduate student working for him called David Brang. 

After some tests, Brang drew his finger along the right side of his face, and asked Salinas what he felt. ‘A fingertip passing along the left side of my face,’ said Salinas. 

Brang suggested that he might have mirror- touch synesthesia, which was first identified in 2005 and defined as the brain taking in visual information through the eyes and turning it into the tactile experience felt in the body.

He was relieved to have it named but to some extent Salinas resisted the diagnosis. He was concerned that it might threaten his career – he had just graduated from Harvard and was now a doctor. ‘I was hesitant to really identify with that label without something more concrete.’

Although keen to find out if he did indeed have MTS, there was also a slight reluctance to know. ‘Part of me didn’t want to be more different – I thought, as long as I don’t know that I’m different, I don’t have to deal with the consequences of that.’

He heard of a scientist who could help, and went to London and had a series of tests developed by Michael Banissy, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, and an expert in MTS. He now runs a social neuroscience lab devoted to studying synesthesia, and Salinas is part of his ongoing study.

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