Unthinkable // Helen Thomson

Life is stranger than fiction. On the same day that I watch an episode of Black Mirror and consider the brutal potential consequences of living with extreme empathy, I join the audience for a talk by Helen Thomson. We listen to Joel’s life story. He is also a doctor in a hospital and, by dint of an extremely rare neurological condition, is also able to feel another’s pain as his own. His condition is the result of a faulty mirror neuron response. If he witnesses an event that causes an emotional or physical response in another person, he feels it as though it is happening to him. 

His is one of ten stories contained in Thomson’s book Unthinkable. As an audience, we inhale in simultaneously sympathy as we hear that if he sees a patient die, he feels his own breathing falter and his body begins to shut down. Even though he’s developed techniques to override these powerful sensations, his mirror touch synaesthesia impacts every waking hour of his life.

Thomson: scientist, writer and consultant for New Scientist, is fascinated by the infinite ways human beings see the world. She is an explorer, satisfying her obsession with learning more about those brains that don’t look like everyone else’s by travelling to meet people with rare conditions across the planet. What is it like when you live your life thinking you are a tiger or wake up dead?

The talk feels a bit close when I realise that I most likely have a mild form of synaesthesia based on her descriptors of the condition. I wonder, does everyone else in the room feel prompted to consider their own unique brain chemistry and connections?

Susan is constantly lost in familiar surroundings due to deficits in her ability to form a consistent mental map. Thus, even finding her way from the bedroom to the bathroom is a daily challenge. What is more extraordinary than this unusual perception of the world is her resourcefulness. She has developed remarkable strategies to combat her condition. She spins like Wonder Woman to reset her brain and flip her map into some semblance of familiarity. Every day she behaves like a superhero.

The talk prompts us to ask questions of ourselves. What are our own powers in the face of adversity? How might we overcome life’s considerable challenges? Most importantly Unthinkable encourages us to become more curious about who we are and which of our myriad perceived flaws make us unique and powerful.

- Melissa Jacob


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Helen Thomson


What is a Mirror Neuron? - American Psychological Association

The Strange World of Synesthaesia

Black Museum - Black Mirror