Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mindreading by looking at the eyes: do we improve as we age?

Do you think you’re good at understanding people by looking them in the eye? This skill is not only important for making money playing poker but for social situations, relationships and everyday professional interactions.

Recently, scientific interest in mindreading by looking others in the eye has increased, mainly within the context of ‘theory of mind’ – the general capacity to understand one’s own and other people’s mental states (e.g. emotions, desires, beliefs). A test that is commonly administered is the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, which you can try yourself here. You may be surprised at how accurate your abilities are (I scored 26/36, which is considered within the normal range). But might it be possible that more experience can improve your score?

A new study in press in the journal Neuropsychologia employed this test to study differences in abilities to mindread between younger and older individuals. Ilaria Castelli and colleagues used fMRI to study the brain’s responses of 21-30 year olds versus 60-78 year olds during performance of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They found that young and old people did not differ in their abilities to understand mental states represented in the eyes, but the groups recruited different neural circuitry to complete the task. Some areas were activated only or more extensively in the younger group, and vice versa.

So the results suggest that aging doesn’t help us understand others through the eyes. However, the researchers didn’t comment on controlling for amount of experience with people, which could be a factor that would lead to improvements in mindreading abilities. Also, since there were only 12 subjects in each group, the study doesn’t necessarily provide the final verdict on whether aging/experience can improve mindreading in the eyes. Nonetheless, the study may pave the way to more research on aging and theory of mind.

Additionally, the study may provide insight to changes in the brain’s cognitive strategies as we age. Indeed some of the results appear to be in line with other fMRI studies on aging. For example, older subjects relied more on the frontal cortex, which is known to be more active in other cognitive tasks in elderly individuals.

The authors also suggest that both groups used areas that are implicated in the (controversial) mirror neuron system devoted to empathy, but older people also recruited areas implicated in the mirror neuron system for language understanding. It should be understood, however, that the concepts and existences of these mirror neuron systems in humans are still subjects for debate.

Even though I think some of the results should be interpreted cautiously, I’m still a fan of this study. By applying the study of theory of mind to aging, we may be able to gain insight to the brain’s aging process and the mechanism of cognitive decline. Theory of mind studies can teach us more than just things that are cool and interesting – practical applications could come about in the future. 

Castelli I, Baglio F, Blasi V, Alberoni M, Falini A, Liverta-Sempio O, Nemni R, & Marchetti A (2010). Effects of aging on mindreading ability through the eyes: An fMRI study. Neuropsychologia PMID: 20457166

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