SAN FRANCISCO—We may all have a little bit of Narcissus in us. If the mythological figure were a modern-day pretty boy—say a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon--a neuroscientist might interpret the infatuation with self not as a tragic flaw, but rather as a normal manifestation of the functioning of the superior temporal sulcus, the inferior frontal gyrus or some other brain structure lifted straight out of TV's Grey’s Anatomy.

Like Narcissus, neuroscientists have found that our own faces capture our rapt attention. We recognize emotions from sadness to disgust more readily on our own faces than in the same expressions made by others. And when we don’t, something may be very wrong. This insight, presented yesterday at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting here, seems fairly obvious at first glance. 

But Bhismadev Chakrabarti, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, wondered about it when he started his study. After all,  most of us don’t spend  the majority of our time looking in the mirror. In fact, we pass most of  our days looking at other people and trying to determine, for instance,  if they're frowning at us or simply getting ready to sneeze.

To find the answer, Chakrabarti and  colleagues took photos of 34 women who feigned facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and fear. The women did not see the photos until several weeks later when they were shown a mix of pix including those as well as photos of strangers.

“What we find is that no matter which emotion they’re looking at," Chakrabarti says, "they’re always quicker at detecting the emotion from their own faces than from other people’s faces.”

The  researcher speculates that areas of the brain involved with visual and emotional processing (such as the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala)—and those engaged in visualizing the actions of others (including the superior temporal sulcus and the inferior parietal lobule)—may be trying to match an emotional expression on a new face to an internalized representation. And the image embossed in that mental template may, in fact, be one’s own face.

The study may be more than an academic curiosity. Chakrabarti is a research fellow in the Autism Research Centre at  Cambridge University, where director Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues study the way the brain allows people to empathize with others The researchers are intrigued by empathy, particularly because a lack of it is a defining characteristic of autism, a major focus of the laboratory. (The laboratory head is the  cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, creator of Ali G and Borat, comic personas renowned for their unempathetic social ineptness.)

Chakrabarti is considering launching a collaboration with another group to explore whether an autistic patient might better perceive social cues after being shown photos of emotions on his or her own face.

“People with autism can’t put themselves in shoes of others, so they can’t have an idea of other people’s mental states," Chakrabarti says. It may be that neuroscience is adding substance to the old saying that “to know others, you must know yourself.” 

Photo of Brad Pitt by Chris Natt via Flickr