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Rats Feel Each Other's Pain 200

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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  • "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.
  • by forkfail ( 228161 ) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:24AM (#38314848)

    They all too often do have a feral pack protection instinct, though.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:39AM (#38315046)
    I can't decide whether to mod this funny or insightful.
  • 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.
  • 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?

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

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:53AM (#38315222) 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.
  • 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 [], 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.

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

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday December 09, 2011 @01:15PM (#38316152) 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. [] (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.

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.