Are You Empathetic? Your Genes May Hold the Answer

Are You Empathetic? Your Genes May Hold the Answer
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Why you should care

Our ability to read emotions may be partly genetic.

Besides the meltdowns and over-the-top photo shoots, Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model brought us “smizing”: smiling with the eyes. Turns out that what’s arguably the most famous Tyra-ism may have some scientific truth. Our eyes convey a rich array of expressions — and according to new research, how well we read those emotions may depend on our DNA.

A June Molecular Psychiatry study suggests that genetics may influence our ability to infer people’s thoughts or feelings from their eyes — a trait known as cognitive empathy. Scientists from the University of Cambridge have traced this ability to a tiny segment of chromosome 3 in women.

People who are imaginative and intellectually curious are also likely better at reading others’ emotions.

Cognitive empathy is measured with what’s known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, developed by the Cambridge research group two decades ago. The test features 36 photos of people’s eyes expressing various emotions, each followed by four words — if you choose the word that correctly describes the pictured emotion, you score a point. The higher your score, the greater your cognitive empathy.

Next, the researchers analyzed the genomes of about 90,000 people, looking at around 10 million genetic variants (think typos in the molecular letters that make up the genetic code, explains study lead author Varun Warrier of Cambridge). A handful of these “misspellings” — all located within a short segment of chromosome 3 — are significantly correlated with higher Eyes test scores. This particular chromosome segment happens to lie next to a gene (called LRRN1) that has high activity in a brain region involved in cognitive empathy. (Although the researchers didn’t see an association between genetic variants on chromosome 3 and Eyes test scores in men, “one would need a much larger data set to know for certain whether that effect was gender specific,” says Andrew Paterson of the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto.)

The study may contribute to a larger effort to redefine psychiatric disorders in terms of underlying genetic traits.

Here’s what it comes down to: Genes that allow people to have a more open personality — imaginative, intellectually curious and enjoys engaging in new experiences — are also likely to make them better at reading others’ emotions. This is also the case for genes that lead people to show high intelligence as kids and finish more years of school. So the genetic variants that result in openness, cognitive ability, educational attainment and emotion recognition may all contribute to one fundamental trait, Warrier says.

To be sure, there could be other gene-based factors that affect whether we can read people’s emotions, says Paul Thompson of the University of Southern California, who co-led a study whose data Warrier included in the June study. For one, all the participants in this study were of European ancestry and therefore don’t represent the general population, Paterson notes. Still, at this point we can conclude that genetic variations on a specific region of chromosome 3 do influence Eyes test scores, he says.

And the findings go beyond being able to read whether someone is feeling sad or angry. The study may contribute to a larger effort to redefine psychiatric disorders in terms of underlying genetic traits — like cognitive empathy — and other biological markers, Warrier notes. It could help us address everything from difficulty relating to others to criminal behavior. “If [these behaviors] can be treated, it’s good to have genetic candidates on the list for drug companies,” Thompson says. He sees the study as a first step toward unraveling the genetic and environmental influences on empathy: “There’s no one single answer, but the fact that you can find any answers in the genome is remarkable.”

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