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?)