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

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

    There've been some milder studies vaguely like that in monkeys. In one such study [], 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.

  • Cannibalism (Score:4, Interesting)

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

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

  • 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:Not surprised (Score:5, Interesting)

    by VortexCortex ( 1117377 ) <.moc.edargorter- ... . .xetroCxetroV.> on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:56AM (#38315242)

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

    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. []

    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:"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?

  • Re:Not surprised (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 09, 2011 @11:59AM (#38315286)

    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 the cage (I had to put something over the door to keep her from getting out after that!) while I was laying on the couch. I didn't notice until she hopped onto my chest from the top of the couch. She snuggled there for quite a while before finally becoming restless and I took her back to her cage.

    She lived to be over 6 years old (for rat owners, you know how short their lives are). I miss her very much. She was one of my first, and I've owned many since then. However, none have come close to her in personality!

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

    by The Askylist ( 2488908 ) on Friday December 09, 2011 @02:21PM (#38317046)

    My partner used to keep rats as pets. Despite not being keen on having the little critters sitting on my shoulder, they were interesting to observe when in their (large and well provisioned) cage.

    At one time, when we had three males, and the eldest was ill and lethargic, the younger rats would fetch him food and huddle up to him to keep him warm. I never though of it as empathy, though - I assumed that it was a sort of hierarchical respect shown by juveniles to an elder.

    They are amusing little creatures, and do show distinct personality traits, so I suppose empathy is not entirely unlikely.

  • 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.

The party adjourned to a hot tub, yes. Fully clothed, I might add. -- IBM employee, testifying in California State Supreme Court