Mind and body

How we learn to read another’s mind by looking into their eyes

The ability to read other minds develops early in human infancy, and is deeply influenced by cues from the eye.

Eyes play a prominent role in our daily social encounters and are sometimes metaphorically referred to as windows to our souls. There now is compelling evidence to support the notion that much information about another person’s mind can be gleaned from his or her eyes. In one proof of concept, the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test or RMET, developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and his group at Cambridge University in the UK, has documented our ability to identify inner states from the eyes and the region surrounding the eyes.

The extent of information that eyes communicate about other minds might be somewhat limited, yet evidence argues against the long-held view of philosophers in the sceptical tradition that the contents of other minds cannot be directly observed. Instead, human eyes form a bridge between self and other by providing direct access to another person’s inner state.

The phenomenon is unique to humans alone. Indeed, after comparison with nearly half of all primate species, the human eye has been shown to be morphologically and responsively unique. Humans not only show the greatest horizontal elongation of the eye outline and the largest amount of exposed tissue (called sclera) around the eyeball, but are also the only species with sclera that is white.

When compared with our closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees, we humans focus more steadily on the eye region when scanning faces. By 14 months of age, the human gaze follows eyes almost exclusively whereas other great apes rely more on head direction.

Eyes have it

The sensitivity to eyes emerges early in human development. From birth, newborn infants show a preference for faces, despite their poor visual acuity. Human infants prefer to look at faces that have eyes open versus eyes closed. Newborns exhibit a preference for faces only with naturally appearing eyes, including black iris and white sclera, versus control faces with white iris and black sclera. And infants appear to glean emotional information about other minds by gazing at eyes, literally recruiting brain regions that, in adults, are involved in understanding another person’s mental state. Strikingly, by seven months of age, infants detect emotional cues and distinguish between direct and averted gaze solely on the basis of the eye whites.

The attachment neurohormone oxytocin modulates our response to eye cues. When the hormone is administered through nasal passages during studies, subjects viewing faces show increased fixation on eyes. Oxytocin also significantly enhances the recognition of emotional and mental states from eye cues.

Reduced sensitivity to eyes and eye cues has been described as one of the earliest identifiable warning signs in the development of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies show that, along the autism spectrum, orientation to eyes is initially present in young infants but later declines between two and six months of age. Characteristic differences in the brain responses to eye-gaze cues recorded at age six to 10 months predicted autism diagnosed at 36 months.

Furthermore, older children with autism display enhanced brain responses to eye cues after intranasal oxytocin administration. The connection between oxytocin and mind-reading is nuanced indeed: research shows that genetic variations affecting oxytocin release and breastfeeding experience impact infants’ emotional response to eyes as early as seven months of age.

All in all, the ability to read other minds develops early in human infancy, and is deeply influenced by cues from the eyes. The phenomenon requires no explicit, conceptual grasp of other minds, but rather relies on direct experience of others’ emotional and mental states.

Of course, humans read others through a variety of modes – the sense of touch, for instance, or vocal cues. But eye cues have always been invaluable during close-range interactions lacking physical contact. Early in our evolution, eye cues were vital for cooperative hunting and foraging, truly essential for groups hoping to avoid predators and catch prey. Today such cues help us negotiate the world writ large, whether passing through crowds or functioning on the job. Communicating through eyes is an aid to cooperation, helping us identify and coordinate with the best partners by gaining access to their minds. Eyes as windows into other minds can be considered a hallmark feature of human social functioning with deep biological roots.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.