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Mirror Touch

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Mirror Touch

Mirror Touch

Mirror Touch

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NPR Science Reporter Geoff Brumfiel gives Alix and Lulu a primer on the theory of quantum entanglement. Then, the hosts introduce you to Amanda, who can physically feel what other people are feeling.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

LULU MILLER, HOST:

And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: One day last summer, because we wanted to see something truly magical, Lulu and I found ourselves standing in front of a huge table covered in lasers and mirrors while a very nervous physicist hovered nearby.

DAVID HUCUL: Now, try not to bump anything here.

SPIEGEL: The nervous physicist, and our guide for the day, was a grad student from the University of Maryland named David Hucul.

HUCUL: It doesn't look like these things do anything, but I promise you all of the pieces on this table are important.

SPIEGEL: And David had brought us to the table because he wanted to use the many lasers and mirrors to try to perform something called quantum entanglement.

HUCUL: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: He was going to try to take two separate atoms and, using his laser, turn them into the same thing.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: At the simplest level, entanglement is just the idea that two things that are separated in space can still be the same thing.

MILLER: That's Geoff Brumfiel, the physics guy at NPR, who we brought along to help us try to make sense of what we were about to see.

BRUMFIEL: You can have an object that exists in two different spaces, and it's still the same object. I mean, that's wild. That's totally weird, right?

MILLER: (Laughter) Yes.

HUCUL: So if you look at that screen right there...

MILLER: So David directed our attention to the first atom, which sat in a metal box on one side of the table. You could actually see it on a screen right above the box. It looked like a little, pulsing, green dot.

Wow.

HUCUL: So you're looking at it right now.

MILLER: And then he pointed us to the other atom, four feet away across the table in an identical metal box.

HUCUL: We typically refer to the atoms as East and West because, well, the cardinal directions.

SPIEGEL: Two separate physical things in two different places. They pulsed and spun at their own rate. They were completely different individuals, so to speak. But then, David pressed a button.

HUCUL: One, two, three, go.

MILLER: And lasers shoot out of this contraption on the table. And those lasers hit the atoms and make them spin faster until they each emit a photon, which David and his team can make crash into each other in a way that then connects and entangles the atoms that those photons have left behind them. Now, to know whether it has actually worked, David has rigged up a device that makes an audible click anytime entanglement is actually successful. So we wait. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICK)

HUCUL: So there's entanglement going on right now between these two chambers.

MILLER: Those two atoms, East and West, are now one, even though they still sit four feet across from each other on a table.

HUCUL: And it's amazing. You can wave your hand in the middle of it, and it doesn't affect it.

MILLER: Wow. If David and his colleagues did something to change one of the atoms in its little box, they could be 100 percent certain that the other atom, still in its little box, would also change.

HUCUL: It's almost like destiny.

MILLER: Now, the U.S. government is actually funding this work in the hopes of making a computer network, a quantum computer network that could ensure with absolute certainty that information that travelled between two parties was not breached. And so far, scientists have been able to get entanglement to occur at a distance of just over 88 miles. Though theoretically you could fly one atom to the moon, and still, if you affected it in some way, the other atom back on Earth would be affected instantaneously in the same way.

BRUMFIEL: I mean, that's wild. That's totally bizarre. The guys who do this research don't understand it. They tell me they don't understand it. It's just there. It's - you know, it's math, and it works.

MILLER: And you don't even need lasers to get it to work. Quantum entanglement, the scientists told us, probably happens all the time in the natural world. Like, there could be one particle of you right now entangled with a person that you just passed on the street.

BRUMFIEL: The idea that two objects that are physically separated, I mean, really physically separated over miles or, you know, eons or whatever - time, space, what have you - are still the same thing is something so foreign, I think it just makes me cautious, I guess, about what I think is possible, what I think I understand about the way the world works because there's this very common thing at a very small level that doesn't correspond to anything we understand about the universe.

MILLER: From NPR News, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: We are a show about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. And today, we are looking at entanglements that we cannot see, entanglements that may surprise you. That is the theme of this show.

SPIEGEL: Stay with us. OK, so speaking of breaking all known rules of the universe, turns out that entanglements like this don't just stop at atoms. They can happen in a way with people.

Yeah, oh, maybe it's on the other side?

Which is why we ended up late and lost in a rental car, searching for an address. Six, three...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE RINGING)

SPIEGEL: Oh, here we go.

Hi. Hi, we are circling.

We were going to visit a woman named Amanda.

Oh, there you are.

Very petite and pretty, dressed all in black with long, dark hair.

AMANDA: Hi, nice to meet you.

SPIEGEL: It's so nice to meet you.

We're keeping her identity private because she has a very unusual condition. Amanda says she physically feels everything the people around her physically feel.

AMANDA: You know, when I tell people that, I sound completely insane, you know, like an idiot.

SPIEGEL: But Amanda says that these ghost feelings, they have always been there, ever since she was small.

AMANDA: Yeah, I think I was about 3 at a Christmas party or something. They had this boy - he was older than me - and people were hugging him like they hadn't seen him in a while. They knew the family and stuff like that. And I remember feeling like I was being hugged watching him.

SPIEGEL: So someone at the party would come up and hug the boy, and little Amanda, a couple feet away, would feel it.

AMANDA: It was like a warm rush up the spine and just constricted the shoulder area here, like this. And I followed him around, like, the whole entire evening because it was just so nice.

SPIEGEL: He'd get a hug. She'd get a little hug.

AMANDA: A warm rush.

SPIEGEL: He'd get a hug. She'd get a little hug.

AMANDA: And, I mean, that was the first time I can remember it clearly. And I thought everybody felt that.

SPIEGEL: Basically, whenever Amanda sees someone, she physically experiences some version of what they physically experience. So when, as we were talking, I scratched my ear, Amanda felt a little tickle.

AMANDA: A little tickle right here.

MILLER: Or when I gave myself a little slap. (Slapping) Just a test.

AMANDA: Dude.

SPIEGEL: Amanda felt it, too.

AMANDA: It's totally fine.

SPIEGEL: And in Amanda's home, you can actually see strange physical traces of living with this condition. For instance, there's no real dining table in her house because Amanda can't eat around other people.

AMANDA: Gosh. It feels like they're shoving food in my mouth. And I'm trying to eat, and they're shoving their forks in my mouth. And it's like this thing piled on top of itself, and it's terrible.

MICHAEL: So I'll have to go sit on the couch and eat my food.

MILLER: That's her husband.

MICHAEL: So we really don't eat together as a result of that.

SPIEGEL: Also, when we visited, all the blinds in her home were drawn. Though it was a bright, sunny day outside - Memorial Day, actually - you would never know it. Amanda prefers things subdued because the outside world can be overstimulating and unpredictable. For instance, she told us about this one day when she went to the grocery store and saw a kid playing in a grocery cart.

AMANDA: Standing up in the cart, I think. And he fell backwards and hit his head - just smack. And I went to run. And all of a sudden, my eyes went blurry, and I was down on my knees on the thing before I could get to this kid. And I'm just like, this child, he needs help. And my head hurt so bad that I basically, you know, was like crawling to try to get to the kid. Like, it was bad.

MICHAEL: I think there may be a lot of people who hear this sort of thing and think it's basically [expletive].

SPIEGEL: So that's her husband again.

MICHAEL: But, I mean, I see it, and there's something to this.

MICHAEL BANISSY: Certainly. Yeah, no, totally.

MILLER: Alix, were you not just thinking it was about time for a British scientist?

SPIEGEL: I was yearning for the authority of a British person right now.

MILLER: Well, here we've got one. This one's name is Michael Banissy. And he is a neuroscientist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

BANISSY: I run the brain stimulation laboratory.

MILLER: And what Banissy's team saw when they looked at people like Amanda is that when they watch somebody else get touched, the touch centers of their brain go wild.

BANISSY: They hyper-activate their system. It's over-excitable. It's much more excitable than when you or I activate the system.

MILLER: 'Cause, see, it turns out this is something we all do, but in a much smaller way. Like when you or I watch somebody get hugged or slapped, say, we all get a tiny burst of activity in the corresponding area of our brain. These are called our mirror systems or mirror neurons.

BANISSY: So in this sense, we do kind of automatically slip into the shoes of other people, even if we're not consciously aware of that.

MILLER: But usually that activity is very quiet. What was different about the people like Amanda Banissy and his team put into brain scanners was that those same mirror systems were dialed way up.

BANISSY: So what they're doing is potentially activating the system past threshold to the extent that they can actually reach the level of a conscious experience.

MILLER: In other words, physically, they do feel what other people feel.

BANISSY: These guys are literally having a physical sensation or tactile response when observing these experiences in other people.

AMANDA: It was like a warm rush up the spine that was just so nice.

MILLER: So if this is still all sounding a little sci-fi, remember that touch - all touch, even the touch that you feel like...

SPIEGEL: Ow.

MILLER: Sorry, Alix - a little pinch down on your skin. That feeling is created by your brain. You feel it down on your skin, but it is manufactured up in your brain. And so in the case of people like Amanda, their brain is manufacturing that same sensation...

SPIEGEL: Ow. Dude.

MILLER: ...Even when it's not them being touched.

AMANDA: When I tell people that, I sound, you know, like an idiot.

BANISSY: But it is ultimately your brain signals that are kind relaying the feeling to you that I am being touched now.

MILLER: This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia.

BANISSY: Mirror-touch synesthesia.

MILLER: 'Cause, you know, synesthesia is when your senses get crossed. And here, their touch system is crossed with their visual system.

BANISSY: If people, for example, see me, let's say, touching an ice cube or something like that, they'll say they'll get a sensation in their fingertip of coldness.

MILLER: And Banissy says mirror-touch isn't just about physical feelings. They seem to contract people's feelingsy feelings.

BANISSY: Emotions. So for example, if you see somebody upset, and you feel upset in response to that. And it's in this type of empathy that we find that mirror-touch synesthetes differ to non-synesthetes. They have higher levels of this.

MILLER: And finally, it's genetic.

BANISSY: Runs in families.

MILLER: Amanda's brother had it, too.

AMANDA: We didn't know what to call it, you know?

MILLER: Did you call it anything?

AMANDA: We just called it the thing, the thing.

SPIEGEL: So how do you deal with this thing?

AMANDA: That woman, her ankles look like they hurt. And my ankles hurt right now because I watched them.

SPIEGEL: How do you live when just a trip to the grocery store involves getting intimately entangled with everyone you see?

AMANDA: I'm kind of getting the downs from that guy.

SPIEGEL: Amanda says when she was growing up, sometimes after being out in the world with everyone else's feelings pulsing through her body, she'd come home and just pass out.

AMANDA: It's like the sleep would come over me after couple hours outside.

SPIEGEL: She said it was like the sleep of the dead.

AMANDA: The sleep - I call it the sleep.

SPIEGEL: Did your brother have it, too?

AMANDA: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: And so when Amanda was very young, she learned this trick - this way of protecting herself from the feelings of the world. What she'd do is scan her classroom, past the boy squirming in his chair, the girl picking her scab, and she'd find the one person who was calmer or happier or more peaceful than the rest. And she'd focus exclusively on them.

AMANDA: Concentrate on somebody that wasn't bothering me (laughter) you know?

MILLER: She would concentrate on their movements, their mood, disappear into them.

What was one of the kids you'd, like, find refuge in looking at?

AMANDA: OK. This kid - his name was Jesse (ph). And he was quiet, and his hair was kind of shaggy. He didn't really have any friends, and I'd just look at him.

SPIEGEL: She said he had very gentle movements.

AMANDA: The way he'd scratch his hair.

SPIEGEL: So she would focus on him.

AMANDA: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: And feel calm.

AMANDA: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: And as Amanda got older, she continued to use a variation of this strategy in her life to get by. She would find people who had some quality that made her feel good, and she would completely disappear into them and their lives, like a human chameleon that took on the color and perspective in life of one person after another.

AMANDA: I spent my life losing myself in other people, on whims, just gone.

SPIEGEL: She said this started in earnest with a man who was her dance instructor. She loved being around him, so she moved in and lived with him for several years.

AMANDA: Their dreams become your dreams, and you kind of forget about yourself.

SPIEGEL: But then she met a man from a very religious family. And she loved the way he walked and the way that he smoked cigarettes. He made her feel safe.

AMANDA: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: So she moved with him to his home country.

AMANDA: I did that for a little while.

SPIEGEL: How long?

AMANDA: Not very long. Maybe like a year or so.

SPIEGEL: Then there was the punk-rock guy back in the states, who actually fell into a coma shortly after they met. So Amanda says she spent months quietly sitting in his hospital room.

AMANDA: I was like a chameleon.

SPIEGEL: There were half a dozen other lives as well, and in her late 20s, she'd be hit time to time with this very haunting sensation that there was something profoundly off here, like when she found herself in a strange bathroom in a strange country.

AMANDA: I remember looking in the mirror, and I - I was just staring at myself in the mirror, like, what am I doing here?

SPIEGEL: She remembers thinking, I just have no idea who I am.

AMANDA: Is this who I am? Or is this who I am because of the people around me? Am I taking them on, you know? Are they affecting me so badly - so overwhelming me - their personalities, their movements, their this and that? Am I myself?

SPIEGEL: In fact, even in our interview, Lulu and I saw a little, tiny part of this habit that Amanda has of losing herself in other people. It had been a surprisingly difficult afternoon of Amanda explaining this very chaotic life that she led. So I decided to pause, check in, see how she was doing.

Maybe we could institute, like, just, like, a five minutes of truth. Like, what would you do - like, how are you doing? And what would you like to do? Like, what do you need?

AMANDA: It's - I'm completely not - I'm just...

SPIEGEL: But Amanda couldn't say what she needed.

MILLER: You're not focused on...

AMANDA: Not at all.

SPIEGEL: Oh, so right now you're not focused on yourself at all?

MILLER: I know. Are you like, they're journalists, I'm relating to them. They need me to keep talking, so I'm going to keep talking to make them feel better.

AMANDA: Exactly. Yeah, yeah.

SPIEGEL: It wasn't clear to her which feelings were hers.

AMANDA: It was just kind of overwhelming.

MILLER: And it's possible that this inability to know which feelings are foreign and which feelings are hers could be due to another abnormality with her brain.

BANISSY: Mirror-touch synesthetes appear to have less gray matter.

MILLER: That's Michael Banissy again. And he and his team saw that people like Amanda have less gray matter...

BANISSY: Kind of proxy measure for a number of cells within a brain region.

MILLER: ...In one very particular spot of the brain, the part of the brain that's involved in distinguishing self from other.

BANISSY: Temporoparietal junction.

SPIEGEL: It's like that region was depleted.

BANISSY: Suggesting that there might be some breakdown in terms of the way the brain is activating when it's trying to distinguish between the self and somebody else.

MILLER: Banissy says it's almost like that boundary between self and other had dissolved.

BANISSY: And it's actually this blurring between the self and other that might lead to them treating other people's bodies as if it's their own.

AMANDA: Is this who I am, or is this who I am because of the people around me? And I taking them on?

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to probably the most difficult part of Amanda's story - the way it seems like her mirror-touch might have affected her relationship with her family.

AMANDA: Think I've left a trail of chaos a lot of the time - a lot of the time.

SPIEGEL: See, in one of her many lives, Amanda was a mother. With the dance instructor, she had three children. And when she disappeared into other people's lives, she disappeared from their lives, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She used to travel all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Only saw her, like, every few summers.

SPIEGEL: These are two of her daughters, now 19 and 18.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We were, like, away from her for a long period of time. My dad took us, obviously.

SPIEGEL: She also has a son. And all three seem to have only very vague memories of their mom from when they were little, because for a significant chunks of their childhood, she was just gone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Lived with my mom a little bit when I was younger, can barely remember it, but.

AMANDA: It was terrible.

SPIEGEL: Amanda knows now that she let down her children during this period.

AMANDA: I had very distorted version of myself. I really thought that I had been, like, a really great mom while they were little. And I just wasn't.

SPIEGEL: It wasn't really until her early 30s that she came to see her life as a chameleon as something that was harming her children. She realized it in part because she was just kind of growing up, but also because it was in her 30s that she finally discovered her synesthesia. See, mirror-touch isn't Amanda's only synesthesia. She also has the more typical kinds, like she sees numbers as colors and sounds as smells. But growing up, Amanda didn't have a name for any of this. But then one day, a friend called and told her to turn on the television and watch this show.

AMANDA: Called - I think it was "Brainman." Have you seen that documentary?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BRAINMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Different parts of our brain are specialized for different tasks.

SPIEGEL: The show is about this very unusual brain condition where the different senses get crossed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BRAINMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Scientists call this weird phenomenon synesthesia.

SPIEGEL: And there was the announcer describing perfectly that part of her synesthetic experience. So this discovery led her to a synesthete listserv, which led her to the discovery of her mirror-touch, which, on the one hand, was great but also prompted a major re-evaluation. What she had was a neurological condition. It wasn't going away. So she needed a more radical solution. And that was when Amanda became a recluse.

So in the last four years, you've really stopped going out?

AMANDA: Yes, I guess I have. For sure, yeah.

SPIEGEL: And she's an odd kind of recluse because she's a total people-person.

AMANDA: I know. I love people. I love people.

SPIEGEL: You love people, but you just can't be around them?

AMANDA: Not all the time, no. I've tried. I have tried.

SPIEGEL: So she goes out just once a day. She goes to the grocery store. Otherwise, for the last four years, she's mostly been at home with her husband and children for company. She doesn't go to the kids' schools or out with friends. And Amanda is very clear about why she is doing this.

AMANDA: I don't want to be affected by people so much that my own children don't know who I am.

SPIEGEL: And in certain ways, this strategy has worked. For the last four years, Amanda and her husband have provided a stable middle-class home for their children.

Now, how old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Four.

SPIEGEL: Four?

The family has even expanded. They've had a fourth child, a little girl.

AMANDA: Now, who's that? Is that a unicorn? No. Pegasus?

SPIEGEL: And her middle daughter says it's clear Amanda does seem to be doing better now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She's a lot more happy now that all of her kids have moved back in.

SPIEGEL: Amanda agrees. This helps.

AMANDA: Are those My Little Ponys?

SPIEGEL: And without other people to become absorbed into, the chameleon is wearing her own colors in a way.

So just describe what we're looking at here.

AMANDA: OK. This one's called "He Catches Her."

SPIEGEL: OK.

AMANDA: And it's because of seeing somebody catch somebody.

SPIEGEL: Up on the walls of Amanda's home, there are a series of paintings - wild swirls of color so dense with movement that they almost feel like they're alive. Amanda painted them.

AMANDA: A memory of my dad in a pasture with four horses.

SPIEGEL: Painting is one of the activities that Amanda has been doing over the last four years. In her work, she expresses her memories, her moments, herself.

AMANDA: It's me. I feel like that part's me, for sure.

SPIEGEL: So it seems that being a recluse is a reasonable solution to the problem that Amanda faces. I mean, for all of us, as we walk through the world, the feelings, thoughts of other people, they affect us, subtly leak into us. Mostly, we are not aware of those exchanges. But Amanda neurologically cannot avoid them. So she's hyperaware of how we are entangled with each other.

AMANDA: I do believe our thoughts are matter. Our thoughts are actual matter, just like our skin and this couch. And I think our thoughts have a ripple effect.

SPIEGEL: They travel through the air and change her. So for her, the only way to stay intact is to stay inside. But not everybody in the family is comfortable with how she deals with her mirror-touch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's weird. She misses out a lot of stuff.

SPIEGEL: This is her eldest daughter, a beautiful girl with her mother's dark eyes. In fact, she is a lot like her mother, and not just in terms of her looks, which brings us to the final twist in the story. Lulu, you talked to her.

MILLER: So remember how we learned that mirror-touch synesthesia is genetic? Well, everybody in the family thinks that the oldest girl is a little synesthesia, too?

MICHAEL: Yeah.

AMANDA: Yeah.

MILLER: Amanda says she didn't notice it until her daughter was about 12 years old. One day, her other two kids were sort of play-fighting across the room.

AMANDA: And my son, like, fake-slapped my other one, you know. And my daughter goes, oh - like this. And I turned to her. I'm like, did you feel that? She's like, yeah. I'm like, so you feel the slap across the room on your face? She's like, duh.

MILLER: But Amanda says her daughter denies she has the condition.

AMANDA: She thinks it's something disabling like that.

MICHAEL: I think she's scared of it.

MILLER: And when I asked her, you know, do you think you have mirror-touch synesthesia?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't like to think I do.

MILLER: Like if you go into a party, do you feel aware of what most people are feeling in the room?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, that's actually funny. (Laughter) I do go to parties because I'm in high school. I do go there, but I never drink. I've probably gotten drunk three times in my whole life. But when I go to parties, it's like I already feel like I'm drunk because I'm with everybody who is drunk (laughter).

MILLER: Really? Do you truly - do you feel like a little buzz?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Like, stumbling and not being able to hold myself up, so I'm over, like, leaning on somebody else.

MILLER: Wow, how do you explain - so how do you explain that to yourself, like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't know. I just get a high off of other people (laughter).

MILLER: Do you ever get - like, if you see a little kid spinning around and around, do you ever get dizzy?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: It makes me want to throw up, like, for them (laughter).

MILLER: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, for them.

MILLER: Is it hard to watch other people eat?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, I hate it - like icky, nasty, squishy feeling in your mouth.

MILLER: And then she told me about the hives.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Like you may see my mom, like, scratching her neck a lot because she gets really nervous, and she has these little hives. And I get them, too, because I see her doing it. See, I've got - I can barely see it, but that's because I always cover them up with makeup because I get it, too.

MILLER: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

MILLER: So I had to ask again.

Do you think you have mirror-touch synesthesia?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Possibly, but I don't want to end up like her because, I mean, she's - I don't want to be rude, but it's like wasted time. She knows so many languages. And she's an artist. And she has so much potential and talent, and she doesn't do anything.

MILLER: Amanda's paintings - those bright and swirling canvases - hang all over the walls of her daughter's room.

Are you the one that puts all her paintings up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She doesn't like to show them.

MILLER: Do you like them?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

MILLER: What do you like about them?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: 'Cause it's her. It's her emotions.

MILLER: Are you worried, like - are you worried that that's - that you're the same way?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Kind of.

MILLER: But she does everything she can to be different. As overstimulating as the world can be, she's constantly going out with friends.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm always trying to get out. I don't like the - I don't like how quiet it is here. It sucks. Nobody talks here. I guess it's 'cause we feel each other all the time.

MILLER: And suddenly, there were tears in her eyes.

What is that about?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We don't talk.

MILLER: And I began to wonder if maybe this is the danger of empathy - when you think you know what someone else is feeling, when you're pretty sure you've got a handle on it, you don't bother to ask.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We never talk, and it isn't right. It doesn't feel right. She doesn't ask what's up.

MILLER: You wish she would just ask, what's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, but I would also hate it if she did. That's the contradiction here (laughter).

MILLER: So how can she win? How could she - how could she - what would you want?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't know - maybe get out for once like a normal parent. She probably won't even show up to my graduation. Sure, that's fine, but I feel absent when she's absent.

MILLER: Do you think she has any idea, like, how much you care?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, she probably does. If she really does have synesthesia, you know, she'd know.

AMANDA: Yeah, she has a lot of resentments. She's disappointed.

SPIEGEL: Right before we left town, we sat with Amanda in her car and talked to her about her eldest daughter and her other kids. Amanda knew it was hard for them, particularly her oldest, that she didn't go to the daily events of life - the dance concerts, the soccer games - but she felt it just worked better when she held herself back. In fact, she said she now even holds herself emotionally apart from her children - keeps them at a distance.

Why are you disconnected? Why?

AMANDA: Well, it's - it's just, how are you going to survive if we're all like these emotional - if we're crying all the time and we're sad all the time and we're showing the other person who's sad and we're affecting the other person and we're, you know...

SPIEGEL: So even though she knows her distance hurts them, she thinks it's the thing that's finally allowed her to be there with them.

AMANDA: Yeah, I know it sounds harsh, but I have a job to do. And it's just to, you know - I have a job to do. I'm supposed to be their mother. I'm not supposed to be them. I'm not supposed to be them.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION)

SPIEGEL: A couple of weeks after we left town, we got this video via email. It was a recording of her daughter's graduation ceremony. And amid the crowd of feelings, of kids nervous about the rest of their lives and parents choked up at letting their kids go and grandparents with aching backs and babies wailing about whatever it is that babies wail about - in the middle of that great wash of emotion that flows from and covers us all, stood Amanda, a mother there to watch her daughter cross the stage.

INVISIBILIA will return in a moment.

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