Empathy, the ability to understand and pay attention to the feelings of others, is mainly the product of our experience but also a bit of it is in our genes, showed the British and French researchers.
The study was conducted on 46,000 subjects and is the largest one of this kind, by now
Autism and related disorders affect indeed the “cognitive empathy”, namely the faculty to recognize the feelings of others.
“The largest genetic study conducted on empathy, using data from more than 46,000 customers of 23andMe”, according to the Pasteur Institute, who contributed to the research, has been published Monday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
There is no objective measure of empathy but scientists have relied on the “empathy quotient”, which is measured by a 2004 questionnaire developed at the University of Cambridge.
They compared the results of this questionnaire and the genome of the 46,000 subjects, reconstructed from saliva samples.
“Our empathy is partly genetic. Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors,” reported the Pasteur Institute in a statement regarding the study.
“Individually each gene plays a small role and it is difficult to identify them,” said Thomas Bourgeron, one of the study’s authors.
Women show more empathy than men
“Second, the new study confirmed that women on average showed more empathy than men. However, this difference is not due to our DNA,” added a researcher from the Cambridge University, who also participated in the study.
It could be explained by “other non-genetic biological factors”, for example hormonal factors, “or non-biological factors such as socialization, which both differ according to sex”.
This discovery brings us one more step closer to understanding the autism
Finally, the study shows that “genetic variations associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk of autism”.
Highlighting genetic factors will help scientists understand persons like the autistic ones, who have problems picturing the emotions and the feelings of the ones around them.
This difficulty in reading emotions can become as disabling as any other disability, commented one of the leading study’s authors, Simon Baron-Cohen. The origins of autism, which affects about one in every 100 people, remain largely unknown.