Genes affect the ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
The eyes are the door to the mind, and reading a person’s thoughts and emotions through them is influenced by DNA. Sci-fi much?! Actually, University of Cambridge researchers had developed a ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test two decades ago. Meant as a ‘cognitive empathy’ test, it revealed the human natural ability of rapidly interpreting the thoughts and feelings of other people just by looking at their eyes; cognitive empathy is the conscious effort to correctly identify and understand someone’s emotions. Another interesting finding of this research was that women would generally score better than men in the Eyes test, and some individuals would be better than others, regardless of sex.
The same test has now been conducted again by the same researchers, working in collaboration with an international team of scientists, on a group of 89,000 people from all over the world.
Through the new findings, it was confirmed that women (on average) indeed scored better than men, and that our genes did influence our performance on the Eyes Test. The team also spotted genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women which appeared to code for their ability to glimpse in people’s minds through their eyes; no such genetic association in this particular part of the chromosome was found in men though. This result was further supported by an additional study, an independent one conducted on 1,500 people—the genetic link in women might very well be a reliable finding.
The closest genes in this region of chromosome 3 include one known to be highly active in the human brain region called the striatum known to have an important role in cognitive empathy. Furthermore, genetic variants associated with higher scores on the test appear to increase the volume of the striatum in humans.
Also, the genetic variants that are linked with higher scores on the test also increase the risk for anorexia; other studies based on this test show that people with anorexia would generally score lower.
“This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy,” says lead author Varun Warrier.
This study suggests that empathy is partly genetic, adds author T Bourgeron. However, he does mention other “important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience”.
The team will now be conducting further investigations to determine whether their results can be replicated.