New Study Shows DNA Influences Social Intelligence

Your responses to photos like this can be used to measure social intelligence. Credit: Anna Bal

Studies of personality and social intelligence are growing in relevance within the scientific community. It is becoming increasingly possible to pinpoint the genetic traits that make up psychological (neuropsychiatric ?) characteristics. These little clues can give important insight into human behaviour, allowing us to relate to each other with a renewed perspective and understanding.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have concluded that DNA is a contributing factor to how well we are able to read the emotions of other people, simply by looking at their eyes. The article was recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, with the title “Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition”.

It is well-known that capacity for empathy varies among human beings. The authors define cognitive empathy as “the ability to recognize what another person is thinking or feeling, and to predict their behaviour based on their mental states”. Furthermore, this ability is “vital for interpersonal relationships, which in turn is a key contributor of wellbeing”.

The study considered a meta-analysis of cognitive empathy in over 89,000 participants of European ancestry, using the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test in order to measure empathy. Individuals were tested, as well as twins, to gather a deeper understanding of familial traits.

In the test, participants are asked to quickly interpret what someone is thinking or feeling, simply by looking at a black and white photo showing only the eyes. According to the results:

“The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans”.

Gender has also been shown to be a contributing factor for level of empathy, as females have consistently shown higher empathy than men. Other known variances of empathy have been related to neuropsychiatric conditions, including autism, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.

You can take the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test and participate in the study here. Scroll to the end and click “Try it!”.

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