While some people may claim to be mind readers, the concept has never been scientifically proven. But now, new research has found that mind reading is real — on some level, at least — and that some people are better at it than others.
The study, which was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, had nearly 90,000 people take a cognitive empathy test, i.e. a test to determine how well they recognize and understand another person’s emotions. The test, which was called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, found that some people can quickly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling just by looking at their eyes. Researchers also found that women, on average, are better at this than men.
Scientists also did genetic testing on the participants and found that there’s a particular gene variant on chromosome 3 that’s associated with the ability to “read” another person’s eyes. It was a link that was only found in women — not men. Researchers also found a similar pattern of results in a separate study of almost 1,500 people who were part of a longitudinal twin study, which suggests that the genetic link in women is more than a random association.
Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who did not work on the study, tells Yahoo Beauty that, from a purely evolutionary and biological standpoint, she’s not surprised that women might be better able to detect another person’s emotions by looking in their eyes. “Women have to understand their babies non-verbally — babies don’t talk,” she explains. “Moms have to figure out what they need without them being able to tell you, by watching them and reading their face.” Clark calls this visual empathy “biological and a necessity” for women.
Clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Beauty that it’s especially important that people can read eyes because they’re so revealing. “Our eyes express emotion in an involuntary way, thus they are perfect tools for judging emotion in others,” he says. “Humans can control facial expressions and gross body language, but the most difficult part of us is our eyes — for the large part they respond as part of the autonomic nervous system’s involuntary response to stimuli.”
Study co-author Varun Warrier, Ph.D., also spoke to Yahoo Beauty saying that this could simply be biological — meaning, female-specific hormones are the reasons behind a woman’s increased empathy. But Warrier also says that it could also be culturally determined, “as women are provided an environment to hone this particular skill set.”
“We find some evidence, at a genetic level, that men and women have different sets of genes that influence this trait,” he says. “However, we cannot completely discount other post-natal factors.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that men can’t be “mind-readers” as well — the innate ability just may be stronger in women. “This is not to say that men don’t need empathy, but from an anthropological perspective, women are biologically designed to care-take,” Clark says.
It’s possible to undergo genetic testing to see if you possess this mind-reading gene variant, but it may be simpler than that; If you’re able to read someone’s emotions well without talking, you may possess this gene variation. “When you can understand how someone is feeling, feel their experience, or simply feel compassion, you have empathy,” Clark says. “While it may be more honed for some, all of us have empathy skills. As social creatures, empathy is a critical element of needed connection and is therefore paramount to survival.”
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