The Organic Roots of Social Ineptitude


Yes, we know what you’re thinking, even if you don’t say it. And now it’s been scientifically proved. Researchers in Britain have isolated the area in the brain that gives us the ability to read people’s minds. “Mentalizing,” that is, reacting to others based on what we think are their intentions and desires, is a skill that’s hard-wired into our brains, says British scientist Christopher Frith. The findings of Frith and his team appeared in last month’s Science magazine.

Thus, what some call social intelligence is mostly something we’re born with, though some of it is learned. Magnetic resonance imaging studies confirmed that when a person imagines what another is thinking or feeling, the lights go on in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. (Hence, we presume, the phrases “dim bulb,” and “the lights are on, but nobody’s home.”) This is another one of those qualities that separate us--well, some of us--from the apes.

“Most of the time we’re not responding to people’s actual words but to the intentions behind the words,” Frith says. Which is why my kids usually know I mean “Pipe down!” when I say, “Could you two possibly be any louder?!!”


People with a deficient prefrontal cortex don’t seem to realize what others are thinking and are socially inept as a consequence. And here I just thought these people were raised by wolves. And though his studies don’t yet confirm this, Frith suspects women have more of this skill than men do.

Apparently so, given the example of mentalizing he cites: “Say I’m sitting quietly at home. My wife comes in after an exhausting day of shopping and says, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ The correct response to her,” Frith says, “would be, ‘Yes, I’ll make one right away.’ ” For himself, one presumes.

Mice One, Chickens Zero

And now we’re feeling really insulted. After all these years of scientists comparing us to mice or lab rats, which was bad enough, we’re now told we have more in common genetically with chickens.

According to research published in Nature magazine last month, the gene maps of chickens and humans are more similar than those of humans and rodents. They speculate that this is because over the years rodents have evolved faster than humans or our fine-feathered hens, which I’m suddenly more fond of.

And if the mice get word of this, imagine the protest. I can see them now, forming picket lines outside labs and toting signs saying, “Go Pick on the Chickens, You Clucks.”

Get Tested, See a Show

Turns out that of all the efforts to get people tested for the HIV virus--and they range from common-sense appeals to scare tactics to billboards--one AIDS clinic director has finally hit on an apparent winner: movie passes.


The entertaining approach was Wilbert Jordan’s idea. An infectious-disease specialist, Jordan heads the Oasis Clinic and AIDS Program at King-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. He asked 31 of his patients, all HIV positive, to bring in people for testing whom they knew who might also be HIV positive. In exchange, both the patient and the person coming in got free movie passes.

The result? Seventy-seven people got tested, and 37, or 48%, tested positive. Of those, 35 are getting treatment. Jordan notes that in anonymous-testing centers, usually only 1.5% of the people coming in, or three out of 200, test positive, .

Jordan says he was “astounded” by the program’s success. But is it really just the free offer? Could this be the answer to coax women to get mammograms or men to get prostate screenings? Probably not.

In hindsight, Jordan says, the program’s success is because people at risk for HIV often don’t have much of a support group. But when a friend whom they know is HIV positive comes with them to the test, they know they don’t have to find out the news alone. And those with HIV are the best resource for finding others who may have the virus. That model doesn’t work for cancer.

Though some people have questioned the ethics of a program that would trade movie passes for AIDS tests, Jordan defends it: “Many people choose a phone company because they get free minutes for signing. Incentives are everywhere.”