When you’re with someone you love, sometimes it’s like you can read their mind. Well, according to new research, you sort of can.

There are special types of brain cells that allow us to process the decision making of others, literally “reconstructing” their state of mind whilst predicting their intentions. Understanding these neurons and their functionality can help us understand what happens when they dysfunction – which can explain why social disorders like autism occur (“‘Mindreading’ neurons”, 2019).

The study performed by University of Cambridge found “simulation neurons” – these are in the amygdala and allow animals to “reconstruct their social partner’s state of mind and thereby predict their intentions,”

Overactive neurons in this area can also help explain individuals who have social anxiety, who are often over stimulated by predicting someone else thoughts or intentions about a situation (“‘Mindreading’ neurons”, 2019).

“ ‘We started out looking for neurons that might be involved in social learning. We were surprised to find that amygdala neurons not only learn the value of objects from social observation, but actually use this information to simulate a partner’s decisions,’” stated Dr. Fabian Grabenhorst, the lead of the study (“‘Mindreading’ neurons”, 2019).

To test this phenomenon, researchers analyzed macaque monkeys while they performed an observational learning task. The monkeys sat paired with another monkey, and had to touch a screen to make a choice for what reward they would receive. To maximize the reward, the animals had to learn what pictures on the screen associated with the highest reward – each monkey took turns picking a reward as well (“‘Mindreading’ neurons”, 2019).

This is where researchers found the activity in the amygdala of one monkey was linked to the other, thus predicting the reward choice for the other animal.

“ ‘Stimulation and decision neurons are closely intermingled within the amygdala. We managed to distinguish between them and their different functions by carefully examining one neuron at time… we think that stimulation neurons are important building blocks for social cognition,’” stated Grabenhorst (“‘Mindreading’ neurons”, 2019).

Reference: University of Cambridge. (2019, April 11). ‘Mindreading’ neurons simulate decisions of social partners. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 14, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190411115233.htm