My winning science fiction story for Writers of the Future vol. 34, “A Bitter Thing,” was inspired by hard science. In the story, an intergalactic traveller falls for Ami the moment he sees her. It seems to be love at first sight, but can she really trust her understanding of his alien emotions?
The story revolves around the intergalactic traveller, Teese. His alien emotional system was inspired by two disparate pieces of real, Earthly biology. The first is the biology of cephalopod skin, and the second is known as mirror-touch synesthesia.
First, cephalopod skin. Squid, octopuses and cuttlefish are cephalopods, a word I love because it literally means “head-foot”, which is a wonderfully succinct description of an octopus: it’s all head and tentacles. More to the point, they all share to varying degrees the ability to change the color and texture of their skin. For colour, little sacs of pigment called “chromatophores” can expand, showing their color, or contract to imperceptible black dots — like a TV whose colour pixels can change between “on” and “invisible”. In giant cuttlefish, in particular, this effectively gives them nHDTV-capable skin, which they use to produce amazing, complex, strobing displays of colour. The significance of these displays, if any, is still mostly lost on us; but we do have a rough idea that in some species of octopus, the displays could communicate emotions like anger, aggression, alarm.
Next, mirror-touch synaesthesia. Science has found that people have so-called mirror neurons in our brains, which fire in response to seeing something happen to someone else. For example, if we see someone being hit in the face, a corresponding neuron goes off [rewrite this bit]. Mirror-touch synaesthetes, however, have a particularly acute response. Seeing someone slapped in the face provokes a ghost of pain in the mirror-touch synaesthete’s own face. Seeing another’s rage or grief stirs the corresponding emotion. I first read about this condition in Erika Hayasaki’s excellent 2015 article, which I can’t do better than to quote:
“Salinas is peculiarly attuned to the sensations of others. If he sees someone slapped across the cheek, Salinas feels a hint of the slap against his own cheek. A pinch on a stranger’s right arm might become a tickle on his own…. Mirror-touch synesthetes struggle with the constant intrusion of others’ feelings. At a symposium on mirror-touch synesthesia last year in London, a woman named Fiona Torrance, of Liverpool, described how she had once seen one man punch another. She promptly passed out. “I felt the punch,” she explained. … When a psychotic patient goes into a rage, Salinas feels himself getting worked up. … Salinas experiences other people’s sensations of injury and intense emotions, but only to a muted, partial degree. If he saw someone being stabbed in the arm, he says, he would not feel the sharpness of the blade but rather “an echo of pain” on his own arm… But in high school’s morass of angst-ridden teenagers, Salinas was forced to learn how to regulate his own emotional responses.”
These two bits of real Earth science, from the fields of marine biology and neurology, came together to give me my intergalactic traveller, Teese. His cephalopod-like skin shows his emotions instantly and unequivocally. And when he sees an emotion written on another’s skin, he responds like a human mirror-touch synaesthete, feeling the same emotion within himself:
Teese’s people feel emotions the moment they see them. If I’d been one of Teese’s people, I would’ve been flooded with shame the moment I saw the red blotches on his skin, and a paler echo would have bloomed on my own skin. It’s beyond empathy: it’s instant and direct and irresistible. If I’d been a hexie, I would have said: “Why are we ashamed?” while my skin and emotions thrummed in synchrony with his.
Unlike a human mirror-touch synaesthete, though, Teese also reflects the emotions he’s feeling on his cephalopod-like skin. It didn’t come up directly in this story, but you can imagine the feedback loops…
In writing this blog post, I came across Octavia Butler’s “hyper-empathy” or “sharing”, an ability/affliction of the protagonist of her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. I haven’t read these yet, but according to Wikipedia the protagonist literally feels the emotions and physical senstions of those around her. To me, this seems to anticipate mirror-touch synaesthesia. It’s always cool when science fiction anticipates science!
Image credit: Nick Hobgood. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Detail of original image, which is of Euprymna berryi