Saturday, May 05, 2007

Reading the Mind with Oxytocin

This is one of the images in the Reading the Eyes in the Mind test.
Is this woman feeling aghast, irritated, reflective, or impatient?


Is this man feeling ashamed, alarmed, serious, or bewildered?
Click the WOMAN'S EYES to take the whole test.


I continue to be fascinated about the role that oxytocin appears to play in social behavior. Here's a study from Biological Psychiatry where:
...30 healthy male volunteers were tested for their ability to infer the affective mental state of others using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) after intranasal administration of 24 IU oxytocin. RESULTS: Oxytocin improved performance on the RMET compared with placebo. This effect was pronounced for difficult compared with easy items. CONCLUSIONS: Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region. Oxytocin might play a role in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by severe social impairment.

...In sum, this study shows that a single dose of intranasally
administered oxytocin is sufficient to cause a substantial increase
in the ability [of] affective mind-reading and therefore in interpret-
ing subtle social cues from the eye region of other individuals.
Reductions in oxytocin levels have been found in people with autism, as have impairments in cognitive processing of facial features in relevant brain structures (amygdala, fusiform face area). Blocking oxytocin in mice blocks their social recognition. Oxytocin has been shown to increase metabolic activity in these areas. Thus, oxytocin may help us recognize another's emotional state by improving our empathic ability to "read" what someone else if feeling.

There's got to be a similar area in the brain that processes auditory emotional clues, but I am not aware of any.

It would be interesting to know if therapists tend to have higher levels of oxytocin, if the level in the therapist is related to feelings of connectedness by their patients, and if oxytocin nasal spray can improve a therapists empathic abilities. (Reminds me of Deanna Troi, the Betazoid therapist on Star Trek: TNG, who had a type of mind-reading capability. Wasn't there a show where she lost her capabilities?)

19 comments:

Roy said...

Oh, the correct response to the choices for the two images is the 3rd choice (reflective and serious).

ClinkShrink said...

I believe the eyes of the woman are saying, "Why is anyone at home on a Saturday night writing posts about Star Trek?"

The eyes of the man are saying, "And what am I doing at home reading it?"

Perhaps oxytocin just improves alertness and attention to detail? Would a shot of intranasal caffeine do the same thing? I will volunteer for this study.

mcewen said...

Hopefully - 'available soon, in a Walgreens close to you.'
Cheers

Sarebear said...

Dang. I got the woman wrong, and the man right.

I'm better at reading men, anyway, I think. Maybe. I don't like female authority or mother figures, so maybe that's part of my problem.

How's about an intranasal spray of the component in chocolate that stimulates the same area of the brain that sex does? Or something like that? hee hee. Just bottle a version of the "Better Than Sex" cake, and I'll take it to go, please!

dinah said...

Sexy and angry, neither were choices, but trust me on this.

Just back from Fells Point, it was fun...beer and ice cream, separated by a little time. No caffeine.

NeoNurseChic said...

I agree with Dinah. I saw the woman's eyes as seductive, and the men's looked angry, but for the man, out of those choices I would have gone with serious. However, I really would not put reflective with the woman's eyes - I would put instead, seductive.

This is a neat thing - as I was reading, I was thinking the same things about wondering if therapists have a higher level of oxytocin or what if they could take some intranasal oxytocin - would that change things? But after reading Clink's comment, I also think that is a valid point - is it just a heightened sense of attention to detail? Does oxytocin play a role in ADD?

Interesting post!

Take care,
Carrie :)

Roy said...

This question about attention and oyxtocin kept nagging at me, so I went to Pubmed and entered "oxytocin attention" and got about 100 hits but few direct hits.

Goldstein 1989 gave kids with mental retardation vasopressin, oxytocin, and placebo, to see if their IQ or attention improved. Vosopressin increased these measures, but oxytocin and placebo did not.

Fehm-Wolfsdorf 1988 was a better study, looking at EEG and behavioral measures of arousal, memory, and attention in normal male subjects. "Results indicate that vasopressin induces an enhancement of stimulus-related phasic cortical arousal, and that in this respect oxytocin has no effect."

There was only one hit with "Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity"[MeSH] AND oxytocin, Klein and Corwin 2002, entitled Seeing the unexpected: how sex differences in stress responses may provide a new perspective on the manifestation of psychiatric disorders. If you want to read the whole article, I found the pdf here.

DrivingMissMolly said...

I'd wager borderlines have the highest levels.

I got them both right.

Borderlines are very sensitive to facial expressions as well as body language.

Last time I saw Shrink, I knew something was wrong immediately.

I was right. When I asked him he said he was working on something for the legal department that was giving him fits...

Lily

Anonymous said...

I got them right, but only after some thought. My first reaction to both was to think about their age, rather than what they were feeling.

I'm hopeless at reading facial expressions. I've spent a lifetime concentrating on lipreading, not looking at anything else. Now that I've got hearing aids, I've been exploring looking at eyes. It's been quite an experience in middle age.

Gerbil said...

Lily--there was a study that did, in fact, connect BPD with appraisal of others' emotional states, especially fear.

Wagner and Linehan (1999)

Oh, and the reason I got interested in clinical psychology in the first place was Counselor Troi. No joke. (In my own defense, I was 10 years old at the time.)

sophizo said...

I hope I'm not the only one that got both of them wrong. They were both way too subtle for me. At least I got some right taking a full test. I only scored 40%, but at least I scored something on that one! I normally don't score that well. I can only tell the correct expression when it is done in an obvious manner (like a big smile means happy). Interesting post.

Roy said...

Sophizo, the one you linked to was tough. I only got 50%, not getting any of the Fear and only 1 of 4 of the Anger expressions.

I'm not sure how validated this one is. In the oxytocin one, the only clues are the eyes and eyebrows. In yours, you also get mouth open/closed, mouth corners turned up/down, shoulder position, and wrinkled nose (for disgust).

Dinah said...

I, too, scored 50% but didn't tally which mistakes I made. These were no particularly good models and my best guess is that they were actors posing, which would look different than genuine emotion. I was surprised at how difficult it was.

Now that Roy has out-wizened me, I'm relieved we got the same emotion reading score.

sophizo said...

Ok Roy...try this test then. It's a test using only eyes. I found this one a lot harder than the one that used the whole face. Half the eyes looked the same to me.

ClinkShrink said...

OK, I got a 29 (avg 22-30) on the one using only the eyes. At first I did it just based on 'gut' reaction, but after a while I realized I was keying in primarily on eye position---straight forward versus gazing to the left or right, eyes tiled up or down---more so than eyebrow position or cheek/squinting. Interesting.

I wonder how psychopaths would do on something like this. My guess is that they would be outstanding at it, but based on the continuous need to assess threats in the environment.

Violet said...

On the first test I got 64% My best section was sadness where I got 4/4. My worst sections were anger and fear where I got 1/4.

I got 25 on the second test, I guessed for most of them, it was much harder than the first test.

CarrieWannaBePA said...

I got too frustrated by the first test and quit it. I scored a 29 on the 2nd. I had a tough time when the eyes appeared really dark and shadowy.
I work as a therapist for children with autism, and when I started reading the post, autism was the first thing I thought of. It was interesting to then read the author's conclusions.

Lou said...

I got 12 out of 36, I'm really bad at this!!!

I have AS so I guess that's about right

Chaoticidealism said...

Here's something odd: I am autistic, and like many of my online autistic friends, I score average on the eye-reading test--despite being absolutely inept at emotions in everyday situations.

If I focus on eyes as well as listening, I can't pay attention to what somebody is saying. And if I listen, then I have to look away from the face.

I think it's not very smart to force autistic people like me to make eye contact, because eyes are so distracting that it's hard to listen too. My current trick is to look just past somebody's head, so that they think I am looking at their faces, and concentrate on their voices instead. I can get some of the emotion from that.

I think it has more to do with processing multiple things at the same time, than with any sort of "empathy". At any rate, I haven't any problem caring about other people, nor do most of the autistic people I know (they seem to care at the same rate as the general population, though we do tend to be introverts)... That includes some people who are disabled enough to need 24 hour care, and don't seem much different from the rest in that respect; so I don't think level of disability has much to do with level of empathy.

Anyhow, I think it's a processing thing, if my case is anything like typical. Neurological, mostly; how many channels of input can you handle at once? For us, I think it tends to be less than usual, in greater detail than usual. That would explain why I am so good with details--my brain's made to process them instead of generalities.

I also lecture a lot. You can probably tell that from my post. Sorry! :)