It has long been known that empathy and emotional astuteness has both a genetic and biological component and also that it can be developed and strengthened. Now researchers from Cambridge University and scientist teams from France, Australia and the Netherlands have worked alongside genetics company 23andMe in a study that has found that our genetics that help determine how well we can read people’s thoughts and emotions through their eyes. This study has followed on from the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, which 20 years ago, revealed people could rapidly interpret feelings or what people were thinking through their eyes.
It has shown that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.
In the new study scientists tested 89,000 people across the world.
The team confirmed that genes were shown to influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women , which are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes”.
In men, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3.
The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.
Mr Warrier said: “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.”
Professor Bourgeron added: “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.”
Scientists say more work is needed to investigate variations in the ‘striatum’ part of the brain were a certain stretch of chromosome 3 has been to play a role in cognitive empathy.
Professor Baron-Cohen 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. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”
This is really interesting research on what is happening in the brain. How we optimise and strengthen our individual empathic attributes and all aspects of it, from imagining, understanding, feeling and appropriately and compassionately acting in situations where perspective taking is important, is for us to develop.
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