London: Women are more likely to have a ‘mind-reading’ gene mutation that gives them the ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions by looking at their eyes, scientists including one of Indian origin have found.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK conducted a test of cognitive empathy called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test on 89,000 people across the world.
The study has earlier shown that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling by looking at their eyes alone.
Researchers found that women on average score better on this test and identified genetic variants in women that are linked to the ability to “read the mind in the eyes”.
Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test.
The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism.
They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.
“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,” said Varun Warrier, a PhD student at Cambridge.
“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,” said Warrier.
“This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience,” he said.
“We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
“This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population,” said Baron-Cohen.
The study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.