Brain Surgery Gives Woman Emotional Mind Reading Abilities
Could removing part of the brain afford a person emotional telepathy? A French woman who underwent brain surgery to treat epileptic seizures has claimed for twenty years that the surgery enhanced her empathy, and according to a recent study, the woman has become "hyper-empathic."
When the anonymous woman was 17 years old, her seizures became uncontrollable and dangerous, leading surgeons to remove part of her amygdala and hippocampus. Although we still don't understand exactly how emotions work in the brain, both structures, and particularly the amygdala, are thought to be connected to emotional reactions, and mood disorders are common in both epilepsy patients and people who undergo a partial temporal lobectomy. But instead of reporting signs of depression, the woman reported a heightening in physical reactions, emotions, and her ability to read others' emotions.
The researchers, led by Aurélie Richard-Mornas, systematically tested her in order to verify or falsify these claims. They based their study of the theory of mind, which they define as "the ability to infer people's mental states. It allows individuals both to ascribe cognitive and affective states to others and to deduce their intentions from their attitudes." They distinguished between cognitive versus affective theory of mind, where the former is the ability to ascertain cognitive states and beliefs, while the latter is the ability to discern affective states, or feelings. Affective theory of mind is also distinct from empathy, which involves feeling others' emotions as if they were your own.
For their tests, they asked her to fill out a questionnaire, in which she would numerically rate her agreement with various statements that tested her theory of mind, such as "I am good at predicting how someone will feel," or "I get upset if I see people suffering on news programmes." This test isn't particularly compelling on its own, since self-reporting is inherently subjective. But they also performed a relatively objective test called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, a test of "sensitivity IQ" developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. The woman's test results were significantly higher than a control group of ten neurologically normal women, which served as evidence that she has, in fact, developed affective theory of mind. They also confirmed that she has not developed cognitive theory of mind, as she performed equally well as the women in the control group in a test that required her to determine fictional characters' cognitive states.
However, there are several problems involved with this study. First, as mentioned above, the questionnaire is essentially meaningless, as the entire study was predicated on the fact that she believes she has enhanced empathy. Also, ten women is not a particularly large control group, which may confound whether her results were statistically significant or not. Furthermore, although the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test is highly cited, it is not necessarily an infallible tool for measuring emotional intelligence, as it has been criticized for a lack of application to real life and for involving verbal intelligence more than facial processing. And finally, the researchers tested for possible symptoms of mood disorders such as depression or dysthymia using the Rorschach test, which has been widely criticized for its subjectivity and inaccuracy. If the woman does, in fact, have a mood disorder, then it could cause her heightened emotions and contribute to her feelings of enhanced empathy.