Are you good at reading someone’s thoughts by looking into their eyes? Some people have an excellent ability to clearly see emotions in the eyes of others.
A large cognitive empathy tests now reveals that your DNA influences your ability to read a person’s mind. The results of the study show that empathy is partly genetic.
Who do you think scored better on the test – men or women?
Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy’ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.
Now, scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands working together with the genetics company 23andMe have conducted the same test but on a much larger group. As many as 89,000 people from all across the world participated in the test and the results confirmed that women are better at reading a person’s mind by looking into their eyes.
Interestingly, the results also showed that the performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3, one of the 23 pairs of chromosomes in humans. People normally have two copies of this chromosome. Chromosome 3 spans almost 200 million base pairs (the building material of DNA) and represents about 6.5 percent of the total DNA in cells.
The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy.
“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, “Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student who led the study said.
According to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, the results of the study are very intriguing and promising for the future.
Thought we should not forget important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience, the results show that empathy is partly genetic.
Researchers will now continue to explore what these genetic variants do in the brain and how they give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy.