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Science

Rats Feel Each Other's Pain 200

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-wonder-my-rat-gladiator-farm-never-took-off dept.
sciencehabit writes "Empathy lets us feel another person's pain and drives us to help ease it. But is empathy a uniquely human trait? For decades researchers have debated whether nonhuman animals possess this attribute. Now a new study shows that rats will free a trapped cagemate in distress. The results mean that these rodents can be used to help determine the genetic and physiological underpinnings of empathy in people."
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Rats Feel Each Other's Pain

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  • by mr1911 (1942298) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:16AM (#38314746)
    I thought this was going to be an article about the current election cycle.
  • "Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by danbuter (2019760) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:22AM (#38314818)
    Hopefully, by empathy tests, they don't mean torture one rat and see how the others react.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No, that's something only PETA would do.

      • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @03:47PM (#38318172)

        I worked in a research lab for many years and did a lot of surgery and sac-ing (meaning sacrificing) using rats, mice and rabbits. Yeah, the remaining rats knew it was coming. It was painfully, painfully obvious. The rabbits and mice seemed more or less oblivious.

    • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:36AM (#38314992)

      There've been some milder studies vaguely like that in monkeys. In one such study [apa.org], a monkey is given a cord that, if pulled, gives it some food. In the control group, that's all; in the experimental group, pulling the cord also shocks another monkey. They are much less willing to pull the "also shocks someone else" cord. That can be interpreted as a form of empathetic altruism, foregoing a reward to avoid harming someone else. A counter-argument is that it's not altruism so much as monkeys finding expressions of distress unpleasant, meaning they avoid pulling a cord that results in unpleasant sounds: a selfish behavior, because the real goal is to avoid hearing sounds they don't like. On the third hand, that counter-argument is hard to actually separate from "real" empathy, because one potential mechanism for (some kinds of) empathy is that we find it unpleasant to hear expressions of distress from others who are similar enough to us.

      • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dan East (318230) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:53AM (#38315222) Homepage Journal

        Regarding your third hand, it implies that human empathy is only an instantaneous response to something occurring at that moment (I find this stimulus to be bothering, thus I will help this other person to make the stimulus go away). To me empathy is nagging unease or sadness because I know (or can vaguely imagine) what someone else is going through, even if I don't have a direct interaction with that person at all (IE merely being told "This happened to so and so the other day"). So in that context empathy has absolutely nothing to do with selfishness, because the selfish thing to do in that case (being already removed from the person in distress) is to ignore them entirely. In fact, empathy can be downright debilitating, especially when there's nothing that can be done for the person in need.

        • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:4, Insightful)

          by martas (1439879) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:58AM (#38315266)
          I think there's a glaring hole in your argument -- you're assuming that the only stimuli that can be unpleasant in this sense are immediate auditory/visual ones of someone else suffering. If you expand that to include the knowledge that suffering is taking place as a sort of stimulus, then your argument seems to no longer hold.
          • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Dan East (318230) on Friday December 09, 2011 @01:15PM (#38316152) Homepage Journal

            I'm suggesting that empathy is higher order than condition / response, and if you include something as high level as knowledge into that definition, I'm fine with that. To me, empathy is the knowledge that someone is suffering, which is to consider, imagine, or reflect on your own past experiences to glean some understanding of what someone else is enduring. That is quite different than a response to an annoying or disturbing stimuli.

            I also suggest that at least to a significant extent, empathy is a choice. In order for it to be a choice it is not a condition / response. I see a cultural pattern where people are taught (likely in an indirect way, or due to some sort of caste system) to not show (or perhaps even not feel) empathy for others. A good example of this is the horrible story of Yue Yue, a 2 year old Chinese girl that was recently run over by two vehicles and literally stepped over and around by over a dozen people for several minutes before someone helped. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLde8f2zb1U [youtube.com] (VERY disturbing video - watch at your own risk)

            I've seen a strong pattern of this in other videos of trauma, car accidents, etc which leads me to believe the empathy is certainly something controllable, and likely affected by culture and society.

            • by Krishnoid (984597) *

              I see a cultural pattern where people are taught (likely in an indirect way, or due to some sort of caste system) to not show (or perhaps even not feel) empathy for others. A good example of this is the horrible story of Yue Yue, a 2 year old Chinese girl that was recently run over by two vehicles and literally stepped over and around by over a dozen people for several minutes before someone helped.

              Or, if you like, something closer to home [youtube.com].

            • by 0xdeadbeef (28836)

              In order for it to be a choice it is not a condition / response.

              That's just fucking stupid. You contradict yourself. Why must it be "controllable" (your word choice) if it were not involuntary response?

              And if empathy derives from experience, as you say, why would you expect people to help a child hit by a car? Not many people are hit by cars.

              Or, as that disturbs you, why does the fact that millions of children are suffering from hunger right this instant not cause the same visceral reaction? After all, you

            • by martas (1439879)
              Well, this is getting convoluted and vague, so I can't respond point by point, but consider this -- perhaps empathy is, in fact, "condition / response", but because the stimulus is being generated in regions of the brain more subject to conscious control, we can actually cut it off? Much like we (some of us) can stick out fingers in our ears to drown out the screams of a Saudi woman being lashed to death for looking in the direction of a, let's say, banana.
        • by 0xdeadbeef (28836)

          In fact, empathy can be downright debilitating, especially when there's nothing that can be done for the person in need.

          It would not be debilitating if you did not have the selfish and involuntary impulse to do the impossible, to fix the situation causing you stress.

      • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:4, Interesting)

        by RivenAleem (1590553) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:56AM (#38315244)

        I'm quite interested in the outcome of this test, at what point did the 'scientists' decide what they were doing was cruel to the animals and stop? How long did it take before any of the 'scientists' began to show some form of empathy for the monkeys?

        • About the time their grant money ran out.

          But let me go one further. You obviously feel aghast at the thought of creating a system which inflicts pain in a monkey. Now, this isn't dismemberment, brain damage, or anything that will cause long term damage. (Does it even cause short term damage?). These are researchers trying to learn about psychology, sociology, biology, and how to make things better. You know, "Progress". That mystical magical thing that leads to things which let you live a little longer.
          • My heart is not bleeding for these animals, I understand the use of animals for say, medical testing. There is a clearly defined purpose for them, and when they are tested in this manner, it is often in the most "humane" way possible. I fail to see (either I'm just dumb, or they need to explain it better) the applications of knowing that rats feel empathy for other rats in distress. If they can't back up their reasons for doing this test, the practical applications (what lives will be saved) of deliberately

            • Evidence that supports the idea that animals may be able to experience empathy will result in us treating animals more ethically, or at least I'd wager some scientists involved feel that way. I doubt they get some sick pleasure from it, I do understand your concern though.
            • by X0563511 (793323)

              Keep in mind that the 'distress' these rats face is merely the fact that it is in a small compartment ("tube"). It's hardly being tortured.

        • by Jeremi (14640)

          Why do you keep putting quotes around the word scientists?

          • Because I wouldn't like to be considered in the same profession as them. Like I said in another post, I don't mind if there is a clearly defined purpose, ie prolonging human life (hell we do that all the time by rearing, butchering and cooking animals), but if they can't explain to me the purpose of the experiment then they are not scientists.

            Where's the benefit? Are we talking about a cure for aspergers or similar genetic diseases? How do you get from diagnosing empathy in rats to curing human ailments?

            • by X0563511 (793323)

              So, you are saying that the pursuit of understanding isn't valid? That's quite short-sighted. You can't get from A to C without first obtaining C, and there might be a D that you can't see until you get to C.

            • Unless you feel like dissecting a bunch of autistic children, having an animal model of the detection of emotions in conspecifics would be pretty useful, wouldn't it?

              And you aren't going to get one of those without demonstrating that some suitable model animal can, indeed, detect and react to emotional cues in some usefully measurable way, so that you can start poking at the mechanisms responsible...
      • It's pretty silly to believe that humans developed all these complex behaviors in one evolutionary step from the animals preceding them.

      • A counter-argument is that it's not altruism so much as monkeys finding expressions of distress unpleasant, meaning they avoid pulling a cord that results in unpleasant sounds: a selfish behavior, because the real goal is to avoid hearing sounds they don't like.

        There are many forms of altruism in animals such as bats regurgitating blood for hungry cave mates or birds that give a warning cry of predators that reveals the location of the caller to said predators. However altruism is an arguable word in its definition, as typically these gestures of altruism come with increased interest from the opposite sex, a gesture of superiority so to speak which arguably is exactly the same in humans. It could also be said that true altruism does not exist, in humans or anima

      • by bcrowell (177657)

        Yeah, what you're describing is an example of how hard it is to infer animals' mental states based on their behavior. Just because an animal's behavior X is analogous to the behavior Y that we do when we have mental state Z, that doesn't mean that the animal's mental state is at all analogous to Z. Chimps do all kinds of behaviors, including social behaviors and even deception, that would make you think that they must have a theory of mind, but Povinelli did some classic studies where he showed that chimps

    • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Joce640k (829181) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:43AM (#38315098) Homepage

      Does anybody seriously still believe that animals are just dumb, mindless beasts? I thought that way of thinking died out two centuries ago.

      Instead of doing this experiment they could just ask somebody who's ever owned a pet. Or watch a few David Attenborough wildlife documentaries.

      • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by codeAlDente (1643257) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:49AM (#38315162)
        Unfortunately yes. It's only been about half a century since there was active social debate in the US about whether people from other races were just dumb, mindless beasts.
        • 1960? Please cite. A stray moron does not constitute an "active social debate". IoW: that's bullshit.
          • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Informative)

            by codeAlDente (1643257) on Friday December 09, 2011 @01:21PM (#38316266)
            1960 preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In much of the south, blacks were considered the equivalent of beasts. The Catholic Church still abducted native Americans from their families and put them in Catholic schools, reasoning that their tribal culture did not meet the standards of rational thought. For a more academic viewpoint, check out the 1971 book The Pre-Columbian Mind, where a MD/historian Francisco Guerra weighs historical evidence to promote the viewpoint that people living in indigenous societies were indeed capable of rational thought. Or, maybe have a look into the Eugenics movement. http://www.amazon.com/War-Against-Weak-Eugenics-Americas/dp/0914153056/ref=sr_1_1 [amazon.com] It's unwise to assume that the vast majority holds your intelligent, enlightened opinions.
        • It's only been about half a century since there was active social debate in the US about whether people from other races were just dumb, mindless beasts

          And after more careful thought, the native american population decided that yes, on the balance of evidence, they were?

      • Re:"Empathy Tests" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Sockatume (732728) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:53AM (#38315214)

        The reason we know that animals are not just dumb, mindless beasts is because people have done research like this and confirmed experimentally that the presence of such emotions and other higher cognative abilities is real, and not just an anthropomorphising intepretation on the part of the observer. It's taught us a lot about where and how different behaviors arise, and led to all sorts of interesting questions. It's understood that not all animals have a "theory of mind", which is necessary to understand other creatures as having an equivalent perspective to their own. In what way does that influence their internal mental life? Are they natural solipsists? What would've happened if our branch of the evolutionary tree had never gained that ability?

      • by jdgeorge (18767)

        You've got this backwards. The point is that humans are basically just like other mammals, with very slight differences that are due to having relatively enormous brains.

        • Actually, human brains are quite a bit smaller than a lot of animals. Bottlenose dolphins have larger brains than humans. Whales and elephants have much larger brains (elephant brains are about five times the size of human brains). As a percentage of their body mass, mice have larger brains than humans (3.2% of body mass, as opposed to 2.1% for a human).
      • Rivers of animals being driven into slaughter houses.
         

    • by Speare (84249)

      If you'd read the articles instead of just shoot from the hip, you'd know.

      Yes, they torture one rat, if you define "trap the rat in a small clear tube long enough that they might pee from the mental stresses of discovering they're trapped" as torture.

      You can't study empathy without pain or anguish being involved, by definition. You might be able to study this concept by watching it in nature, but the conditions won't be controlled so conclusions will be weak.

      • If you'd read the articles instead of just shoot from the hip, you'd know.

        Yes, they torture one rat, if you define "trap the rat in a small clear tube long enough that they might pee from the mental stresses of discovering they're trapped" as torture.

        If you'd read the other article, (Sorry, I couldn't read past the part where they mentioned painful chemical injections.) then you might, indeed, define this as torture. Or not. As I said, I didn't actually complete that.

    • I can see how the military would be quite interested in this. If this helps them develop a drug that turns off empathy, they'll finally have soldiers that are willing to shoot on their own population when the shit really hits the fan.

      • Already exists, it's called "money." Most of us just haven't received an effective dose to find out if it works on us.

    • Hopefully, by empathy tests, they don't mean torture one rat and see how the others react.

      Nah, it's easier these days. We can check for capillary dilation of the so-called 'blush response' and fluctuations of the pupil. We call it Voight-Kampf for short.

    • Wouldn't surprise me. There was an article on Slate [slate.com] about scentific research on whether being spayed/neuered affects animals' happiness.

      One of the happiness measurement tests on mice is to hold it by the end of its tail and measure how long it takes to stop squirming. (The happier they are, the longer before they give up.)

      Now, I don't know the net impact that neutering has on a pet's happiness ... but I'm pretty sure they don't like being held by their tails until they give up...

  • by dmmiller2k (414630) <dmmiller2k@STRAWgmail.com minus berry> on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:23AM (#38314838)

    I thought this was going to be another article about investment bankers and the financial meltdown.

    Just saying. John Corzine has been in the news recently.

  • Not surprised (Score:4, Informative)

    by milbournosphere (1273186) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:27AM (#38314888)
    The pet rats I've had have consistently showed intelligence, high social awareness, and genuine creativity when playing with me or their cage mates. It doesn't surprise me in the least that they would feel concern and/or empathy towards members of their social circle. These little creatures are much more complex than most people give them credit for...
    • Re:Not surprised (Score:5, Interesting)

      by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortexNO@S ... t-retrograde.com> on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:56AM (#38315242) Homepage

      As a cyberneticist, I can tell you that not all humans take rats for granted... [youtube.com]

      After all: Brain cells are brain cells; Neural networks are neural networks; Intelligence is intelligence; Humans aren't really that special, even if you think they are, they won't be for long. [youtube.com]

      We've only really scratched the surface in our experimenting with Machine Intelligence interfacing with, and even enhancing Organic Intelligence, or vise versa. Not only this, but a mind machine interface creates the possibility for multi-mind beings -- One rat may have less intelligence than a human... but what about a million rat-mind collective?

      This type of research is important, especially using non-human minds because through it we may find whether sympathy is an inherent trait in all life, including that of machine intelligences, hybrid organic intelligences, and even advanced alien intelligences.

      I hope we do discover empathy and kindness to be universal truths. Talk about social awareness...

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Amen. Not just towards cage mates, but to me as well. I had one in particular that seemed very empathetic when I was upset. I took them out at the same time every day and when I was having a bad day she would come over and crawl up my shirt, hop on my shoulder, and lay against my neck until free time was over. She 'loved' me in a way that most people attribute to higher mammals.

      Anecdote: One particularly awful day I let them out and she did what she always does. Later in the evening, she actually escaped th

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:29AM (#38314900)

    This study adds useful new information, but it's not the first finding of animals exhibiting what's sometimes called "directed altruism", helping another animal in response to what appears to be communication of emotional state. Even Darwin remarked that "many animals certainly sympathize with each other’s distress or
    danger", though of course his evidence for that claim wasn't up to modern standards.

    Here's [umd.edu] an interesting review from 2008.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      The new study distinguishes emotional contagion - literally feeling the pain of others, as this headline puts it - from empathy, which is defined as providing a supportive response to another's pain without exhibiting that same emotion. The former is well known in nonhuman animals, the latter not so much.

  • by HopefulIntern (1759406) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:32AM (#38314940)
    Could have just given the rats the Voight-Kampff test.
    • by Guppy (12314) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:38AM (#38315030)

      Could have just given the rats the Voight-Kampff test.

      Yeah, they tried, but it didn't go too well.

      Researcher: "You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, . You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, but you’re not helping. Why is that?
      Rat: "Squeak?"

      Researcher: Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about your mother.
      Rat: "Squeeeeeeak!" *BITE*

  • From the title, I thought it was some research about rats literally feeling each other's pain.

    Think about it, a method to make an attacker feel the victim's pain would pretty much guarantee a Nobel Peace Prize to its inventor, effectively putting an end to warfare as we know it.

    • You mean PTSD? Aren't we desperately trying to find cures for that so we can go back to killing each other?

  • The RIAA is certainly sympathetic to the plight of the MPAA

  • "There isn't a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom -- it's a very wuzzy line -- and it's getting wuzzy-er all the time" -Jane Goodall
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:39AM (#38315042)

    when you place an unconscious rat in a cage with conscious rats, the first thing they do is run over and eat the unconscious rats eyes out.

    i know this from first hand experience. watching it happen, while doing research as an undergrad. i was horrified. the postdoc looked over and was like "oh yeah, that's why we always separate them after giving them an injection to give them time to wake up. did i forget to tell you that part?"

    rats and other rodents also never act sick. ever. even if they have a broken leg or severe infection, they'll continue acting like normal rats, for fear (i assume?) that the second they show any kind of weakness, the other rats will gang up on them and eat them.

    • Maybe rats show empathy, but only if they think the other rat isn't already either dead or done for.

      Then again, rats lack any form of medical treatment. So from their standpoint, maybe eating a mortally wounded or seriously ill colleague is both more humane and less wasteful than letting it slowly die.

      • by alvinrod (889928)
        That ascribes entirely too much emotion that may not exist.

        If I had to guess the reasoning, it's because rats are prey for many other animals and having weak pack members or even weak rats around probably only encourages predators to congregate as the weak animals are a steady source of food. If the healthy rats dispose of the weak ones it might encourage predators to find easier sources for their meal. Therefore, the rats that ate other weaker rats tended to survive longer and procreate more, passing th
    • Considering the results on the current research, it brings into question what component of experiments like yours would cause humans to behave the same way when taken into an extereme; beyomd the natural conditions.

    • by Twinbee (767046)
      As anon said further below, this could be a defence mechanism as it what they think is dead can rot and start to attract predators, affecting the rest.

      So therein lies the question: Did they think that rat was dead?

      And if so, how do they differ from unconscious rats versus sleeping rats?
  • Cannibalism (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dan East (318230) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:41AM (#38315066) Homepage Journal

    Rats engage in cannibalism. Perhaps rats seek out other rats in distress for this reason.

  • Hmmm... (Score:4, Informative)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:43AM (#38315088) Journal
    This just in, rats morally superior to alarming percentage of humans...
  • unfair to the rats, and they deserve better.
  • by macwhizkid (864124) on Friday December 09, 2011 @12:17PM (#38315466)

    Behavioral experiments like this are relatively straightforward to plan and run. The hard part is to explain the result, and the reasons are not always what you'd expect on first glance, often due to confounding variables that you've inadvertently changed.

    It's also worth noting that the news release throws in a quote about altruism, but the original paper's authors were careful not to go there.

    For example, reading this carefully [sciencemag.org], it's clear that the rat frees its cagemate and then goes for the chocolate. It's not a binary choice between the two. Why does it do that? Perhaps it's hidden empathy/altruism circuitry. Or maybe the rat's just afraid of what its cagemate will do if it eats all the food and then the trapped rat gets out. Contrary to what most people think, domesticated rats are very much like domesticated dogs in terms of temperament... very social animals, usually with a playful temperament, but can also be very territorial and assertive. And territorial fighting usually occurs over shared, limited resources, like food. (I will say, chocolate is a good choice. Rats love chocolate. Some of our rats will eat 30 - 40 M&Ms in a half-hour experiment. Not bad for an animal weighing 300 grams.)

    Maybe it is altruism or empathy. But true altruism is doing something good and expecting nothing in return, not a pain avoidance strategy.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      maybe the rat's just afraid of what its cagemate will do if it eats all the food and then the trapped rat gets out.

      That, in itself, would be an interesting result as it would require that the rat anticipate the other rat's reaction without prior experience of the situation. That's not believed to be a common ability in animals.

  • I was thinking "OOooh, rodent telepathy, that's awesome".

    Oh, never mind. More like "Rats have empathy"

  • by NerveGas (168686) on Friday December 09, 2011 @12:30PM (#38315636)

    Anyone who has rats can tell you that they're a whole lot more intelligent and advanced than the stereotype of rats would indicate.

    But in more scientific terms, looking at other mammals, we find that... surprise, surprise... their brains are a lot like ours, and they have very similar capabilities, including emotions and feelings, as ours. They do not have them to the same extent as ours, but they do have them. Those are backed up by psychological observations, by anatomical/structural investigations, and by brain scans.

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Friday December 09, 2011 @12:57PM (#38315944)

    Years ago I watched a crazy book signing on CSPAN by a layman who basically just sat and watched NYC rats and talked about their behavior. The great thing about it was his frantic "WTF has this guy been snorting?" enthusiasm about rats mixed with pretty insightful observations from a guy spending his nights sitting in trash-filled alley. If you ever catch it on one Saturday afternoon, give it a chance.

    My favorite observation was his comments on societal memory. Even after major infrastructural or architectural changes to the city, rats still seemed to follow paths dictated by long-gone geographical features like rivers and hills. He also noted that humans do the same as well! When a prominent street corner building was razed and turned into a paved expanse, pedestrians would still circumnavigate the outline of the building.

  • by koan (80826) on Friday December 09, 2011 @01:56PM (#38316720)

    They prefer the term "Rodent American" not "rat".

  • For as long as i can remember, i have known many animals which show empathy.

    When you look at dogs for example, i have no doubt they have more empathy than us.
    Dogs recognize immediately when you are troubled, and change their behavior based on it. It's one of the reasons people who are afraid of dogs, are more likely to get bitten : they dog knows you are afraid.

    The other way around, it's much harder for us to understand what our dogs our feeling. That's the second reason people might get bitten by dogs ( mi

  • Now a new study shows that rats will free a trapped cagemate in distress.

    Well, that's as good an explanation for the Wall Street bailouts as any I've heard so far...

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