You, Illuminated

Commonsense explanations of neuroscience

The Mind-Reading Hormone: Your Brain's Key to Empathy

A dose of oxytocin improves mind-reading.

The worst time to ask your boss for a raise is when she's having a bad day, giving reason to tune in to her mood, but it's all too easy to misinterpret cues to people's emotions. Wouldn't it pay to be able to read minds?

Brain research says you can. Ok, neuroscience won't give you access to the thoughts in your boss' head, but it may improve the mind-reading tools you already have.

A study in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that mind-reading can be improved with a dose of oxytocin—a brain chemical often called the 'love hormone' because of its role in trust, friendship and bonding. Your ability to read emotional cues in someone's eyes boosts along with your oxytocin levels. This may offer insight into Autism Spectrum Disorders, characterized by both deficits in empathy and lower levels of oxytocin.

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The setup

Researchers at Rostock University, led by Gregor Domes, tested 30 males' mind-reading ability—how well they could infer the mental state of another person—after either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo. Mind-reading was tested using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, where subjects looked at 36 pictures of a person's eyes and tried to guess what emotion the eyes reflected (see example below; here's a link to the full test if you want to see how well you'd do). All subjects came in twice, a week apart. Half the subjects took oxytocin the first week and placebo a week later, and the other half began with placebo. Dosing was double-blind. Domes found that subjects correctly identified the mood conveyed in the eyes more often after taking a dose of oxytocin as compared with placebo, regardless of which they took first.

What emotion do these eyes convey? A: playful B: comforting C: irritated D: Bored Answer below.

Reading the bluff

This study highlights how we can manipulate our mind-reading ability. Just by taking a hormone, we can suddenly become more adept at picking up signals from people around us that alert us to their state of mind.  Imagine taking this to a poker table. Perhaps someone who normally lines everyone's wallets can now cash in, or at least put in a good bluff. The little clues you missed before—the downward glance, the sniffle, the wince—may now rivet your attention, like a whisper that tells you what the person is experiencing. What's more, once you know what they're feeling, you can react to it, not haphazardly, but adeptly, correctly, appropriately.

As Domes writes in the article, "the ability to infer the internal state of another person [and then] adapt one's own behavior is a cornerstone of all human social interactions." We all have some ability to understand our peers' emotional states by observing their actions, expressions, and words, but a change in our hormone levels can alter that ability.

How it might work

Although Domes and colleagues didn't examine how oxytocin affected the brain, they had several ideas about what might be at play.   According to Domes, "Brain regions that are important for social memory may be involved...to retrieve [memories] of others' mental states and their associated facial expressions. Notably, prominent oxytocin receptor binding has been found in respective brain regions, in particular, the hippocampus." The hippocampus is one of the brain's primary locations for memory storage.

While I haven't seen any studies looking at how oxytocin affects real-world social interactions, I, for one, would be interested in being a research subject. I took the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test that they used in this study, and given my average performance, I could use some improvement. 

 

Answer to question above: A, playful

References:

Domes G, Heinrichs M, Michel A, Berger C, Herpertz SC. (2007) Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans. Biol Psychiatry. Mar 15;61(6):731-3.

Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I (2001): The "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test, revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 42:241-251.

Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

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