Somewhere in Between: The other side of empathy

The exhibition at the Welcome Collection is about the intersection of science and art and one being used with another in order to portray diverse concepts like –genetics in contemporary cattle farming, the extended possibilities of touch, sexual health and virus transmission and the human capacity to hold one’s breath.

I found all the topics really interesting but the one that stood out for me and is closely linked to my project was the one about synesthesia by Daria Martin. The outcome of this project was two films screened in the exhibition space, adjacent to one another. Daria Martin explains synesthesia in the catalogue for the exhibition, “synesthesia is an experience in which a stimulus in one sense provokes a subjectively experienced stimulus in another.” The concept of synesthesia explores the ability to move beyond the individual senses of sound, smell, sight, taste and touch. It dwells into the possibility of a human being’s ability to feel when someone else experiences a sensation, for example; if I were to feel the sensation of touch on my shoulder even if I wasn’t exposed to it.

The two films also highlight the possibility of the phenomena being detrimental to the emotional state of a person, is it pleasing to experience the sensations of a different individual constantly? Is there such a thing as too much empathy? This extreme viewpoint on this regard challenges the inherent knowledge of empathy being a detrimental catalyst rather than a driver – “it often causes synaesthetes (people who can experience the phenomenon) to withdraw socially, because our world is not built for such empathy.” The visual language of the films explores this notion as well as ‘At the Threshold’ explores the dynamic of a mother son relationship who are both synaesthetes. The son is anxious to leave home while the mother is hesitant on the same. This analogue film styled in an overtly dramatic way, in terms of direction and set is inspired from the 1950s. It almost adds another layer to the already volatile relationship of parent and child. What would happen if a parent was not just perceptive but could actually physically feel and experience their child’s bodily experiences and vice versa?

The characters in these films experience a kind of synesthesia known as ‘mirror touch synesthesia’,  “which can be conceptualised as a heightened form of physical, and to a degree emotional empathy.” The terminology of this phenomenon could be linked to the concept of ‘mirror neurons’, which are a set of cells in the in the human brain stimulated to perform a certain action when we see another person performing the same action (laughing, reaching for a cup). Mirror neurons help humans and animals navigate and grow in social situations. Mirror touch synesthesia could be seen as a heightened form of this function, where one is not able to see, perceive and subconsciously register but also physically experience the actions of others.

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Sensorium Tests/At the threshold (Image Source: Wellcome Collection)

Citation:

Catalogue for Somewhere in Between by Wellcome Collection

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-mirror-neuron-revolut/

 

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