Author Archives: Kara Danielczuk

Reading the Mind Through the Eyes

As a small group traveling together through the metro for after-class adventures, we flock. Not knowing where we’re going, we the students of the Emory NBB Paris Program look to our mother ducks, Dr. Frenzel and Rachel, for guidance.

Footage of us getting off the metro.

As a duckling, I’ve noticed that our mothers are very good at nonverbal communication. They seem to be able to tell each other things with incredibly vague gestures and odd facial expressions without using any words. We, the ducklings, do not understand their communicative abilities, but I think it could be something unique to being a real adult.

The ability to convey so much information through facial expression alone is incredible. Unspoken communication is even more evident between people who don’t speak the same language. These nonverbal cues are common in Paris between native English speakers and native French speakers. I’ve encountered many exchanges in which participants attempt to use spoken language, but gestures and facial expressions end up being more effective. One study suggested that transient facial expressions cannot be consciously recognized but can be perceived at the unconscious level (Xiao et al., 2016). We can recognize emotions through facial expressions but aren’t aware of it, which is probably the reason why we often get a vibe or a feeling about a person even if we can’t think of what it was that caused us to make that impression. Even if we can’t put a finger on the exact cue, we are able to synthesize the information and use it to make decisions. Well why do some people like our mother ducks pick up on each other’s cues so much easier and seem to have almost telepathic communication?

The Eyes Test is a measure of cognitive empathy.

A recent study has suggested a genetic basis for the ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from simply looking at their eyes (Warrier et al., 2017). A test to measure “cognitive empathy” called the Eyes Test has previously shown that some of us are better at this than others, and specifically that women score slightly better than men (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). The newest study used genetic data from 89,000 people across the world along with the online Eyes Test and confirmed that women tend to do better on the test than men. Interestingly, higher scores on the Eyes Test also correlated with larger volumes of the caudate nucleus and the putamen, which together form the dorsal striatum, a part of the brain which may play a role in cognitive empathy (Abu-Akel and Shamay-Tsoory, 2011). Analysis of genetic data revealed that women’s ability to “read the mind in the eyes” is associated with variations on

The striatum is part of the basal ganglia and may play a role in cognitive empathy.

chromosome 3, whereas this ability in men is not related to this particular region on chromosome 3 (Warrier et al., 2017). But what makes this part of chromosome 3 special? It turns out that it’s really close to a gene called LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neural 1), which is highly expressed in the striatum. Essentially, women who demonstrate higher cognitive empathy have larger dorsal striata, which may be due to variations in specific genes.

Our moms working together to make chocolate.

So what does this mean in terms of the abilities of our mother ducks to communicate with one another while guiding our flock around Paris? It means they probably have a leg up already on Dr. Cafferty at reading each other’s minds because they are women, and they may even have special variations in chromosome 3 that have led to their increased cognitive empathy abilities.

While all of this is pretty cool, it’s important to note that the variations and correlations in this study were only marginal, meaning that there are probably many other mechanisms involved in cognitive empathy. This study doesn’t fully explain differences in “mind reading” skills, but it opens up a door to continue researching the genetic basis of cognitive empathy to better understand disorders, such as autism, associated with deficits in social skills.



Abu-Akel A, Shamay-Tsoory S (2011) Neuroanatomical and neurochemical bases of theory of mind. Neuropsychologia 49:2971-2984.

Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I (2001) The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 42:241-251.

Warrier V, Grasby KL, Uzefovsky F, Toro R, Smith P, Chakrabarti B, Khadake J, Mawbey-Adamson E, Litterman N, Hottenga JJ, Lubke G, Boomsma DI, Martin NG, Hatemi PK, Medland SE, Hinds DA, Bourgeron T, Baron-Cohen S (2017) Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition. Mol Psychiatry.

Xiao R, Li X, Li L, Wang Y (2016) Can We Distinguish Emotions from Faces? Investigation of Implicit and Explicit Processes of Peak Facial Expressions. Front Psychol 7:1330.

La Rage dans les Rues

Whether it’s Friday evening during rush hour or Sunday morning or Tuesday at 2am, I always get to enjoy the lovely sounds of vehicles in Paris. Vehicles communicate in the most loud and obnoxious way, and I’m convinced that it’s even worse than fifteen American college students causing a raucous in the metro. See, these vehicles communicate sans blinkers or small toots. Instead, they scream at each other with blaring horns that could last up to five full seconds. And here I am on the edge of Paris city limits, my window overlooking a busy street and the perimeter highway.

View of the perimeter highway from my window

I know the traffic in Atlanta is bad, but at least cars don’t have conversations via honking there. I’m beginning to think that honking is a subset of the French language. It most likely has developed due to the insane intersections like the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe.

Check out this video to see the roundabout in action:

Traffic around the Arc de Triomphe

So what is behind this road rage of sorts? Impatience. The unwillingness to wait for someone or something and tending to be quickly irritated. While I don’t have any tendencies towards road rage, this is a concept I very much relate to. Pretty much everywhere I go, people walk incredibly slowly and often block the path I’m trying to walk on, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. I think we all get frustrated at some point during each day, but what causes some people to act out this frustration while others let it go? Do some people have more angry personalities than others? Studies have shown that even mentally healthy individuals can engage in consequential acts of aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002), and some people have higher tendencies toward acts of aggression than others (Bettencourt et al., 2006). There are two types of aggressive personalities: general and displaced. When people with high displaced aggression are provoked, they harm innocent others and report increased levels of romantic partner abuse and driving aggression, whereas people with high general aggression do not (Denson et al., 2006).

Much of research concerning driving risk has found that emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are factors in aggressive driving, which leads to risky driving outcomes (Chraif et al., 2016), but few studies have related behavioral observations and subjective ratings to particular areas of the brain. An fMRI study by Denson et al. (2009) sought out to better understand the neural processes underlying risk for aggression. Participants were provoked during a simple task through interruptions, and during one, the experimenter condescendingly implied that the participant was not intelligent enough to follow basic directions.

Figure 1 from Denson et al. (2009)

Interestingly, results from the fMRI imply that there is a neural basis for differences in aggressive behavior. Just seconds after being insulted, there were differences between activated regions of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), that correlated with different aggressive personalities. Individual differences in general aggression and the subjective experience of anger were more strongly correlated with activity of a region associated with the intensity of anger (dACC), whereas individual differences in displaced aggression were more strongly correlated with activity in a region associated with self-reflection and emotional regulation (mPFC) (Figure 1). Essentially, these data suggest that activity in these brain regions contributes to the differences in personality and behavior in response to provocation.

While Denson et al.’s results were convincing, especially through the use of a real-world provocation, I would love to see researchers take this study one step further to observe behavioral variances between those with different aggressive personalities. Though a bit of a stretch, with more research, one might find activation of the mPFC higher in those with road rage. Current models indicate that road rage is an incredibly complex phenomenon, with many contributing psychological factors (Lajunen & Parker, 2001). Perhaps cultural differences play a role, as well, in determining which type of aggressive personality an individual develops. If so, I would guess that the French are prone to high displaced aggression!



Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual review of psychology, 53(1), 27-51.

Bettencourt, B., Talley, A., Benjamin, A. J., & Valentine, J. (2006). Personality and aggressive behavior under provoking and neutral conditions: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 132(5), 751.

Chraif, M., Aniţei, M., Burtăverde, V., & Mihăilă, T. (2016). The link between personality, aggressive driving, and risky driving outcomes–testing a theoretical model. Journal of Risk Research, 19(6), 780-797.

Denson, T. F., Pedersen, W. C., & Miller, N. (2006). The displaced aggression questionnaire. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(6), 1032.

Denson, T. F., Pedersen, W. C., Ronquillo, J., & Nandy, A. S. (2009). The angry brain: Neural correlates of anger, angry rumination, and aggressive personality. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(4), 734-744.

Lajunen, T., & Parker, D. (2001). Are aggressive people aggressive drivers? A study of the relationship between self-reported general aggressiveness, driver anger and aggressive driving. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 33(2), 243-255.

Traffic around the Arc de Triomphe: