After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Humans Have No Monopoly on Empathy

One rat springs another rat from prison, then shares some chocolate with him. Sounds like a Saturday-morning cartoon, but that’s what actually happened in a laboratory experiment showing that real live rats can display empathetic behaviour.

These findings, published in the December 7, 2011 issue of the journal Science by Peggy Mason and her colleagues, got a huge amount of media play, because this was the first time that scientists had shown that an animal other than a primate can take action to relieve the distress of a member of its own species. And this suggested the possibility that empathy, previously regarded as unique to human beings and some of the great apes, might instead have far older origins in the animal kingdom.

Previously, scientists had run experiments in which rats showed more signs of distress when they saw other rats expressing pain if they knew these rats than if they did not. (The term emotional contagion is used to describe this phenomenon, which is regarded as a precursor of human empathy and can of course be seen in humans as well.)

But in Mason’s experiment, the rats did not just show a shared emotion: they engaged in a pro-social behaviour to help one of their own. Further experiments will of course be needed to see whether this behaviour in rats really arises from a motivation that might be called empathy. For example, specialists in emotions, such as Jaak Panksepp, wonder whether these rodents really experience sympathy for their fellows, or whether they act as they do simply because they feel better themselves once they no longer have to witness other rats in distress.

These findings are nevertheless consistent with those that other scientists have made regarding the neurobiology of charity and point to some very deep biological origins for behaviours that do good for others—with all due respect to all those religions that claim a more spiritual source!

i_lien Rats Free Trapped Friends, Hint at Universal Empathy
i_lien Message From Mouse to Mouse: I Feel Your Pain
i_lien Like Humans, Chimps Show Selfless Behaviors
a_exp Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats

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