How to read minds

They say eyes are windows into the soul.

While you shouldn’t believe everything “they” say, that aphorism definitely has some truth.

It’s pretty obvious and well-established that eyes are an important part of human interaction. And we’re starting to understand more than just the psychology behind what our eyes convey: we’re getting down to the genetics of it.

Making eye contact with someone not only allows you to make a stronger connection with them (but not too long, because then they’ll think you’re a psychopath), but will also give you better insight into what you yourself are feeling.

But not everyone is equally good at telling what other people are feeling. You can think of this as the ability to “read the room”. It’s called social intelligence and being able to intuit someone’s feelings based on their eyes is a mark of high social intelligence. It’s also kind of a superpower if you think about it. It’s essentially mind reading.

Scientists like Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher at Cambridge University, have developed a test for this: the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. It takes about ten minutes to complete and is both interesting and fun. Go take it, I’ll wait.

How did you do? Are you more Xavier or more Drax?

A recent study gave this test to about 90000 people who had just taken a 23andMe genetic test and had agreed for their data to be used, as well as about 1500 Australian twins. The researchers were looking for genes that reliably predicted people’s ability to perform well on that test.

The single greatest genetic factor in someone’s performance on the test turns out to be whether they have one or two copies of the X chromosome. Women consistently (and statistically significantly) do better than men on this test.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 3.15.46 PM.png
from V Warrier, K L Grasby, F Uzefovsky, R Toro, P Smith et al.

We already kind of knew that, but this study was also able to identify one change in the genetic code that is significantly correlated with better performance on the Eyes Test in women. That single change (also known as a SNP: Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) is on chromosome 3, near a gene called LRRN1, which we think might be involved in brain development.

Weirdly, they couldn’t find any single genetic basis for performance on the test for men. This might be because men and women’s brains develop in a different way (“different genetic architectures”).

The other interesting finding is that the same genes that are correlated with good performance on this test (in both men and women) are also correlated with anorexia, cognitive aptitude (ie intelligence), openness, and educational attainment. Interestingly, autism is missing from that list.

This study is so amazing because it’s the first time I’ve seen a psychological trait get linked to an individual gene. It’s one of a raft of new results that build on promise of the giant genetic datasets that companies like 23andMe can create.

To sum up: You can read people’s feelings by looking at their eyes and your ability to do that accurately is at least partially determined at birth.

Or, to put it another way, mind reading is genetic.


Featured image by Laitr Keiows via Wikimedia





3 Replies to “How to read minds”

    1. Sorry you feel that way! The point is that everyone can read minds to some extent by observing other people’s eyes, but your ability is at least somewhat predetermined by your genes (and, in women, we know which particular gene).

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