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Reading faces and minds is in our genes

An international study has found that our genes influence our ability to read other people’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes only.

The researchers also confirmed that women are better at this than men, and identified a genetic region that influences this skill in women.

The study has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. It was led by Varun Warrier and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the University of Cambridge and involved collaborators from QIMR Berghofer, as well as scientists from France, the Netherlands, and the United States.

The team assessed 89,000 people from across the world using a cognitive empathy test developed by University of Cambridge researchers in 2001. The test asks participants to identify what thoughts or emotions actors are experiencing (eg. bored, irritated, terrified) by looking at photos of their eyes only.

Scientists have previously found that women, on average, score better on the test than men.

In this study, the researchers confirmed that finding. They also identified a genetic region on chromosome 3 in women that was associated with their ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from their eyes. However, the researchers found that men’s performance on the test was not associated with the same genetic region on chromosome 3.

Dr Katrina Grasby from QIMR Berghofer’s Psychiatric Genetics research group, who was part of the research effort, said the participants included group of about 1,500 twins in Queensland.

“The results show some people are highly skilled at recognising a person’s thoughts and emotions from their faces, while others find this more difficult,” Dr Grasby said.

“This study confirms that cognitive empathy – or understanding another person’s mental state – is influenced by our genetic makeup.

“Identifying genetic regions that influence empathy can guide research into the underpinnings of complex psychological disorders, such as autism.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the University of Cambridge said the findings were exciting.

“We are now testing if the results replicate, and are exploring precisely what the genetic variants at this gene region do in the brain to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy,” he said.

“This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”