The scientific reason some women can ‘read a person’s mind’ through their eyes

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Moya Crockett
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Have you ever met someone who seemed to be able to tell what you were thinking and feeling just by looking at you?

If so, new research suggests that this ability could all be down to DNA – and that women tend to be better ‘mind-readers’ than men.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have released the results of a 20-year study into ‘cognitive empathy’, examining why some people are able to accurately ‘read’ others’ thoughts and emotions without the help of verbal communication.

Their research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, confirms that some people are better than others at interpreting what’s going on in another person’s head. They also found that women scored better than men on average when tested for this ability.

The project began 20 years ago with the development of what was termed the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test’, or the Eyes Test for short. 89,000 people from around the world (recruited with the help of genetics company 23andMe) have now taken part in this test, with their results forming the basis of the new study.

The team concluded that genetics have a significant effect on how people perform on the Eyes Test, and that women’s ability to “read the mind in the eyes” is associated with a genetic variant in their third chromosome.

Men’s score on the Eyes Test was not associated with genes in chromosome 3. The same pattern of results was also found in a separate twin study conducted in Australia, suggesting that the genetic association in women was reliable.

The research was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, and Professor Thomas Bourgeron, of Diderot University and the Institut Pasteur in Paris.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (who is, incidentally, the cousin of Ali G star Sacha Baron-Cohen) said that his team was “excited by this new discovery”.  

He added: “[We] 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.”

Warrier described the findings as “an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience”, saying: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world”.

While the findings are undoubtedly fascinating, Professor Bourgeron warned that we shouldn’t place all of the blame for someone’s ability to empathise – or lack thereof – on their DNA.

“This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic,” he said. “But we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience."

Images: Rex Features