THESE DAYS, NEW THEORIES about how the human brain works are everywhere. Whether it's a magazine feature on the brain's evolutionary history, or a book purporting to reveal the origins of consciousness, or a newspaper report on the discovery of a new neurological center ("This is where a craving for chocolate comes from!"), there's no lack of fascinating hypotheses about how we, as a species, are wired.
But modern brain science can also be directed toward more idiosyncratic and immediately useful ends. Much as an art historian can help us discern hitherto unnoticed qualities in a painting, today's neuroscientists are bridging the gap between the physical reality of our brains and our everyday mental lives. They're making us aware of ingrained reflexes and patterns we didn't realize were affecting us intimately. Cutting-edge neuroscience can teach us not only "how the mind works," but how our own minds work.
Take mindreading skills, for example. Although it may suggest something from the Psychic Friends Network, "mindreading" is a term used by some scientists to describe the complex yet taken-for-granted talent most people have for detecting the inner emotional states of others. Whenever we converse, our spoken dialogue is accompanied by a second, lightning-fast discourse of small gestures, vocal intonations, fleeting smiles, arched eyebrows, and other signals that help us understand one another.
Mindreading of this sort isn't the same thing as empathy, the self-conscious sensation of feeling someone else's pain. Nor is a good mindreader necessarily a "people person" -- we all know backslapping bon vivants who are all but illiterate when it comes to reading the subtleties of social interaction. That's what mindreading is about: building working hypotheses about what's going on in other people's heads, based on the most subtle of cues and clues.
Because a talent for mindreading is something all humans share -- it's as much a part of our nature as is converting oxygen into carbon dioxide -- we don't bother to teach it in schools, or test for an aptitude in it. Yet it is a skill, and like all skills it is unevenly distributed through the general population. And neuroscience can help us understand, and perhaps improve it.
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According to Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the individual talent for mindreading is partially hardwired into our skulls. Baron-Cohen has devised a simple test -- called "The Reading The Mind In The Eyes Test" -- that measures an individual's mindreading ability. The test requires subjects to discern subtle emotional states from a series of photographs of eyes (see illustration, D1). Some people fly through the test with ease, correctly identifying emotions without a second thought. Others flounder, constantly second-guessing themselves. And one group consistently fails the test: people suffering from autism.
But autism, according to Baron-Cohen, may not be a simple on/off condition. Its symptoms -- including difficulties with social interaction and a disinclination to make eye-contact -- exist on a continuum. In other words, although it's impossible to be a little bit pregnant, it may be possible to be a little bit autistic. (Last fall, Baron-Cohen stirred up controversy with a book arguing that autism, which afflicts boys far more often than girls, may even be just an extreme version of normal tendencies in the male brain.)
Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, England, have devised another simple test, called the Autism Spectrum Quotient, that can help us place ourselves along the autism continuum. Instead of testing your IQ, it tests your "AQ." (The test is available at www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html, among other websites.)
Just answer 50 questions about yourself, and a simple program will spit out a number between 1 and 32. The median score is 16.4; most diagnosed autistics score 32 or higher. But Baron-Cohen emphasizes that this is not a diagnostic tool. Those who score 32 or above do not necessarily report finding social interactions difficult, he says, and do not necessarily have autism.
The questions are phrased in the form of statements, with which you can "definitely agree," "slightly agree," "slightly disagree," or "definitely disagree." Here are a few examples:
I frequently find that I don't know how to keep a conversation going.
I find it easy to "read between the lines" when someone is talking to me.
I usually concentrate more on the whole picture, rather than on the small details.
I am not very good at remembering phone numbers.
I don't usually notice small changes in a situation or a person's appearance.
Clearly, the test is not exactly hard science. It won't tell you whether you have autism, but it might tell you something about yourself -- or, more precisely, about your amygdala.
In many ways, the amygdala appears to be the "gut feeling" center of the brain, implicated in all sorts of emotional processing. Recently, for example, it has been shown to play a central role in our understanding of fear -- when people report having a "sinking feeling," or feel "gripped" by fear, the reaction has most likely been triggered by the amygdala. But fear may only be the tip of the iceberg. "My hunch," said Baron-Cohen in an interview last year, "is that the amygdala is actually used to detect a much more varied range of emotions."
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues believe they've made a crucial discovery. "We've done fMRI scans of people taking the `Reading the Eyes' test, and what we've found is that the amygdala lights up in trying to figure out people's thoughts and feelings," Baron-Cohen said last year. "In people with autism, they show highly reduced amygdala activity." For those of us less skilled at mindreading than others, then, the amygdala may be partially to blame.
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Since taking Baron-Cohen's test, I've discovered that "AQ" is one of those categories -- like "introvert/extrovert" or the "rejection sensitivity" described in Peter Kramer's "Listening To Prozac" -- that clicks into place the moment you hear it described in a systematic way. Suddenly, the trait pops out at you everywhere.
This is one of the unsung gifts of modern neuroscience: It lets you see patterns of behavior more clearly. In conversation with old friends and new acquaintances, I consciously scrutinize their facial expressions and gestures for subtle clues about what's going on inside their heads -- and try to figure out how good they are at reading my mind. And one-on-one TV interviews with presidential candidates have taken on a whole new significance -- I'm now just as concerned with candidates' mindreading skills as I am with their political values.
Will taking an AQ test make you a better mindreader? Maybe a little. But studying recent brain research can certainly afford you a new kind of insight. What I've learned is that whether or not the eyes are the window to the soul, they are certainly the window to the amygdala -- and that vista may be just as revealing.
Steven Johnson's new book, from which parts of this essay are adapted, is "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life" (Scribner). He will be reading at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Thursday at 6 p.m. Call (617) 661-1515 for info.