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This Sussex Life: Natalie Bowling, Research Fellow - "Some people can 'inhabit' other people's bodies"

Natalie Bowling with a map of "tastes", which is one of the props she is using at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in London, July 1-7.

University of Sussex psychologist Dr Natalie Bowling will be explaining the unusual phenomenon of mirror-touch synaesthesia at The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in London, July 1-7.

I first came across synaesthesia, which is the triggering of one sense by another (such as hearing colours, or tasting sounds), when I was 16. I was interested in Psychology at school and was doing work experience with Jamie Ward, who was at UCL at the time and had already begun looking into synaesthesia. I thought it was amazing. It’s what led to me studying Psychology at Sussex as an undergraduate in 2006.

I was particularly interested in mirror-touch synaesthesia, which is when a person feels they are having the same physical experience as someone else. For example, if a mirror-touch synaesthete sees someone’s face being touched, they’ll also feel a sensation on the same part of their own face. We think that only one to two percent of the population experience this compared with other types of synaesthesia, such as associating colours with numbers and letters. We estimate that about four per cent of the population experience some kind of synaesthesia.

As part of the exhibition, we will have the “rubber hand illusion”This is where you hide someone’s real hand and you stroke it in synchrony with a rubber hand that they can see. They can start to feel as if the rubber hand is their own hand. We know that people with mirror-touch synaesthesia feel this strongly. You don’t even need to stroke their real hand in synchrony with the rubber hand for them to feel it’s theirs. They have a propensity to inhabit another person’s body, even when there is a mismatch between what they see and what they feel.

We are also going to have an emotion perception game, in which we test people’s ability to recognise facial expressions. We know that people who are good at mirror-touch are also good at emotion perception. They have greater empathy than average, which suggests that we understand people’s emotions by simulating them on our own bodies.

Having empathy is good in certain situations, but having empathy that is too high is not an adaptive trait to have because if you are falling to bits too, you’re not helping that person or yourself.

If we can understand the neural mechanisms of empathy then we might be able to develop training techniques to help where empathy might be low or where being more empathetic might be more beneficial — such as at work, or in politics. It’s also important to be able to control empathy if it’s too overpowering.

I’ve been to The Royal Society exhibition many times before, but this is the first time as an exhibitor. We’re one of 20 groups that were selected out of about 80 who applied. The great thing about it is that visitors get to speak to the scientists and the researchers who are doing the work. This is quite a unique science experience. We are hoping it will help people think about our research in a different way. We can be stuck in our little shells sometimes.

The exhibition is aimed at everyone, from schoolchildren up to any age. I find it’s such a good practice to be able to explain your work clearly, even for other scientists or for applying for funding. I love doing this. I find it helps me in my writing. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

I’m not a synaesthete, but I sometimes wish I were. I’d like to have the music and colour combination, in which you see shapes and colours with sounds. It must be amazing to experiencing music on a different level. A few celebrities have recently come out saying they do this — Lady GagaPharrell WilliamsBillie Eilish. People with synaesthesia tend to be creative, which seems to make sense from what we’ve observed.

Interview by Jacqui Bealing

This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 28 June 2019