Do rats have empathy for their peers?

23-05-2020
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Once again, science has shown that empathy is not exclusive to humans.

As with many feelings, emotions and human qualities, empathy seems to us exclusive to our species. Despite this, researchers and observers have long demonstrated that it was undoubtedly otherwise. A good example is that of rats which show empathy and avoid hurting their fellow humans.

Laboratory tests on the behavior of rats and their application or their relation to human behavior have been carried out for decades. In the same way, this type of study was carried out with pigeons, wolves, dogs or primates.

In human beings, empathy is known as the innate quality of recognizing the emotions of the other. We thus connect emotionally with other individuals in our social group.

In addition, research carried out by scientists from the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in the Netherlands reveals that  rats show empathy towards their fellow humans when they are suffering. This would therefore imply that the ability to put oneself in the place of the other appeared in evolution long before human beings.

How does empathy work?

Une expérience sur les rats et leurs neurones

A region of the human brain, called the anterior singular cortex (ACC), has mirror neurons . These cells react when the individual experiences pain or is in the presence of another fellow congener who is suffering. However, little is known about the underlying cellular mechanisms.

On the other hand, recent studies show that  the anterior singular cortex of rats (in zone 24) also contains mirror neurons. These are activated when the rat experiences pain or one of its fellows suffers.

However, they are not active listening to a suffering rat. This may be, according to other research, due to the fact that the rat must have known fear to feel it when hearing another rat.

Thus, during the experiment, these rats who knew what fear and suffering were, became nervous when their companions emitted ultrasounds to warn the group.

How do you know if rats have empathy?

Deux rats dans une cage

First, for the conduct of the experiment, we trained a group of rats, put in pairs in a cage, to touch a lever to obtain a reward. Shortly after being installed in the cage, the rats understood that by activating a mechanism, they obtained a lump of sugar .

Then, when it became clear that the rats knew how to get this award, the mechanism was changed. From then on, each time they touched the lever, their partner received a small discharge.

As soon as the rats began to be discharged, the others stopped fully activating the lever. In addition to studies on mirror neurons, this experiment could tell us that these animals know when a fellow is suffering and that they try to avoid it.

Empathy or selfishness of rats?

At this point we have to ask ourselves another question. Do rats stop touching the lever out of empathy for their fellows or out of selfishness to calm their own suffering?

Thanks to the mirror neurons, the rats feel, in a certain way, the suffering which their companions feel. Therefore, no longer touching the lever would also calm them.

The same thing happens with human beings. Why do we help a suffering person? By altruism or simply because we do not want to see the suffering of the other who troubles us? The answers to these questions are complex and would require extensive reflection.

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