One night while working the night shift, Megan Pohlmann, 30, scrubbed her hands vigorously, snapped on a pair of blue gloves, and walked into the intensive care unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, a facility so respected that patients are transported here from around the globe. One baby was very sick and unable to sleep. As Pohlmann stood by his crib, trying to calm him down, her head started throbbing—so hard she found herself wanting to bang it against the wall to stop the pressure. Wow, she recalls saying to herself, I wonder if this baby’s head hurts. And if so, why, because his diagnosis has nothing to do with headaches.
In the morning Pohlmann told the doctors she thought the baby had a severe headache—upon investigation, they found he was experiencing a little-known side effect of the medication he was on. They took him off the drug, and when she saw the child again the following night, he was calm and cooing. He was, she recalls, “a different baby.”
Pohlmann is a skilled pediatric nurse. But there’s another reason she can suss out her patient’s pain: She feels it too. Pohlmann has a rare neurological condition called mirror-touch synesthesia, or MTS, which enables her to have a virtual mind meld with those around her. It’s an empathy so profound she can read room when she walks into it, feel the emotions of strangers before they speak, and even suffer the physical pain of another person’s injury.
“For me, if I see you, I know you,” Pohlmann says. And although that connection is most intense with those she has a close relationship with, it’s always there, whether she’s passing worried shoppers in a mall or standing in line with stressed-out travelers at an airport. “Just walking around every day I feel strangers hurting, and I feel it so thoroughly and completely,” Pohlmann explains. “Crowds are overwhelming sometimes. If I’m at a funeral where some people are devastated, others are relieved, still others are awkward, and kids don’t understand, it’s exhausting—I find it hard to manage everything at once. Mainly, I just want to reach out and help people.”
There are some 80 subtypes of synesthesia and Pohlmann has several, including the ability to see letters as colors and numbers as personae.
Synesthesia is the umbrella term for a range of conditions in which the senses intertwine. Some 4 percent of people report having it, and studies suggest the phenomenon has to do with slight differences in their brains, compared to normal ones, that allow for more cross talk between the wiring for sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. (According to one theory, all babies are born with synesthesia, but most outgrow it as the circuits separate.) Many “synnies,” as they call themselves, perceive letters or days of the week in color (Monday is automatically red, for example; Tuesday, always blue). Some “taste” shapes; others read numbers as personalities (9 is an angry man, 7 a fashionable woman). The conjoined senses often result in amazing memory recall. There are some 80 subtypes of synesthesia—and Pohlmann has several, including the ability to see letters as colors and numbers as personae.
But only a rare 1.6 percent of the population has the MTS that can lead to intuiting others’ emotions and experiencing their physical sensations. The condition has been linked to special brain cells called mirror neurons; we all have them—they help us relate to others—but in someone like Pohlmann, they’re a superpower. “MTS goes beyond putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” she says. “It’s actually wearing the shoes for a while. It’s feeling the water splash from puddles. It’s feeling the wear and tear in the soles.”
Pohlmann was four when her mother remarried and she was adopted by her stepdad. Back then, no one was talking about MTS; it was only first documented in 2005. But her mother, Amanda Schaefer, says signs of Pohlmann’s synesthesia emerged early on. “When Megan’s sister was born, I was telling everybody that the baby’s name was Ashley Jean,” Schaefer says, “and Megan would say, ‘No, her name is Ashley Brown.’ She was four. J is brown for her.” When it came to feeling others’ emotions, “I just thought I was overly sensitive,” Pohlmann says. “I’d mirror my mother’s troubles and complex feelings I didn’t understand or know what to do with. Things would bother me so much more than they did other people. I would stress for someone else, and I couldn’t let it go because I would be so worried about them.”
It took some convincing but now I know I don’t have the regular gut intuition everyone else does—I have something extra.
Her urge to help eventually led her to nursing. “For a long time I wondered why I was drawn to this profession, when I could have explored my synesthesia through art or music,” she says. But that wouldn’t have connected her with other people as intensely; she realizes now that she excelled at her job early on because of her—then still undiagnosed—MTS. It was only six years ago that Pohlmann first read about MTS on the Internet and started reaching out to other synnies in Facebook groups. After diving into the studies, she contacted a team of synesthesia researchers in St. Louis who tested her and confirmed she has MTS—she wasn’t “just oversensitive,” as she’d so often been told.
“It took some convincing,” she says of her diagnosis. “But now I know I don’t have the regular gut intuition everyone else does—I have something extra.” Recently in the E.R., doctors were trying to save a baby’s life and needed to move the patient to the intensive care unit. Despite a language barrier—the family spoke only Spanish, which Pohlmann does not—she instantly understood that the mother was terrified of being separated from her baby. “I took her to the stretcher so she could touch her child and feel she was going to be OK before we moved the baby,” says Pohlmann. “It’s instances like this where I’ve realized I can do something for someone that others can’t.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been an easy road. At times a patient’s wounds make her physically ill. “An injury, it gives me chills, like that gut drop when you’re on a roller coaster,” she says. And knowing how it happened—an ankle breaking playing basketball, a finger cut on a tin can—“that takes it to a whole other level.” She also struggled emotionally to shut out other people’s judgments of her. “It was hard to gain confidence as a new nurse while feeling and absorbing the doubt anyone else had in my abilities,” she says. But in the last year or so she’s really started to own her gift: Rather than trying to push aside how she’s feeling to do her job, she’s been working on heightening and controlling her special skill. “It takes a lot of practice,” she says. “Ratcheting it up is easier—I visualize my personal space surrounding the other person’s. Then I can feel them more. Filtering someone else out is harder.” Once an organ transplant patient went into a full-on panic attack and Pohlmann felt herself starting to have one too. Deep-breathing exercises in the hospital’s break room help her find some distance, as does mindless chatter, the stuff we exchange without real emotion with colleagues and friends about weekend plans, clothes, food. And at the end of the day, before heading home, she’ll meditate on the facility’s roof garden to release her patients’ anguish as best she can.
Those patients have benefited from her uncanny ability to know precisely what they’re going through, even though many are too young to speak. Not long ago Pohlmann was caring for a baby born addicted to opioids—the mother, a former opioid abuser, was in treatment and being slowly weaned off the drugs while trying to breast-feed, but she was not producing enough milk. “The baby would be really calm, sweet, and normal, and then absolutely go through the roof and nobody could figure out why,” says Pohlmann. “One time when the child was really cranky, I started feeling panicky, shaky, and wanting to throw up all at once. And I thought, Oh, this is what withdrawal feels like.” She saw that the symptoms spiked while the baby was on formula during the times when they’d run out of the opioid-laced breast milk. Pohlmann mixed the milk and formula until the child was stable enough to go home.
“Teenagers,” Pohlmann says, “are my most difficult patients because their emotions are so everywhere.” She felt how the mood of one girl changed every time a certain male family member entered the room. “My Spidey sense went off, telling me that something was very wrong,” she says. “I felt the urge to run away. My head started to spin, and I was sick to my stomach. I felt shame and that I would do anything to not be around this man. After a few minutes I was sure the girl was being abused.” Pohlmann passed on her observations to social workers, who asked her to document her findings to help build a case against the perpetrator.
Allan Doctor, M.D., a pediatric intensive care physician at the hospital, has worked with Pohlmann for nine years. “To tell you the truth, it’s pretty remarkable,” he says of her MTS. Often nurses ask for additional pain medicine or sedation when a child has high blood pressure or heart rate, he explains, which then prompts him to investigate whether the cause is, in fact, pain, or something else, like fever. “Megan’s reliability in sensing when they really are in pain or anxious versus other causes is unusually acute,” he says. He’s also been struck by her ability to connect. “I delivered the news to one mother that we were going to lose her baby or the child would have devastating injuries, and she just looked distraught. Megan—I can’t exactly explain how she did it, but she reached over and just sort of touched her, looking at her in a particularly compassionate way. And the mother began to talk, sharing how difficult all this had been, how her hopes for the child were not going to be realized. It was an impressive display of communication that honestly I couldn’t achieve on my own.”
I think if we all paid more attention to our empathy, that could solve a lot of problems. Sometimes just listening and acknowledging someone’s feelings is enough to make a difference.”
In Pohlmann’s personal life, MTS has amplified the highs and lows, from family friction to falling in love. After she identified it and compared notes with her mother and sister, they realized they also have it (the condition has a strong genetic link). That explains why, she says, “it was hard during the teenage years, when we were all bouncing and cascading off each other. MTS people need boundaries and separation. Imagine: One of us picks up on something, then the other picks up on that plus the other’s reaction to it, then the third picks up on all of that plus their own emotions. God forbid one of us has had espresso that day!”
Dating was excruciating for Pohlmann. “When someone is attracted to me and it’s not mutual, the confusion makes me sick to my stomach,” she says. “So back then, I’d just avoid a guy, and usually he’d get the hint.” But when she met Josh Pohlmann, a coworker at a grocery store, when she was 19, she couldn’t tear herself away. “It is hard to separate mutual feelings,” she says. “We fell in love fast. It was intense. Magnetic.” She was 22 when they married. “I think I chose him because he doesn’t project his feelings very openly,” she says (an assessment he agrees with). “But sometimes he tells me to get out of his head!”
Eight years later they live in an 1850s farmhouse with their sons, Caleb, six, and Benjamin, three, and new baby Miriam. Josh, now an electrician who also raises cattle, has definitely had to learn his way around his wife’s mirroring. When she comes home, often late, he says, “it takes her a long time to unwind. She gets very attached to a lot of the patients—they consume her. And she brings that with her.” He tries to make it easier by having the kids in bed and something ready to eat so she can just relax.
Megan is watching Benjamin closely for MTS. “When I start to get upset, I can see how affected he is—he’ll bring me a glass of water or a blanket, anything to make me feel better,” she says. “And when Miri gets vaccinations, he insists on going. He has to hold her hand and pat her head while the nurse gives her the shots.” She’s pretty sure he feels the needle’s sting himself. “I worry about him taking on too many adult feelings, and about how I will need to block my own emotions from him” to prevent overload, she says. “But I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t function without my MTS—I rely on it so heavily. And I think if we all paid more attention to our empathy, that could solve a lot of problems. Sometimes just listening and acknowledging someone’s feelings is enough to make a difference.”
Maureen Seaberg is coauthor of Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel, her second book on synesthesia.
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