A study published recently in the journal, Science, has revealed that animals of all kinds have the ability to show empathy for each other.
The behaviour is one of great importance in the process of social interaction between groups. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the emotional experience of another human being, and is of fundamental importance for productive and compassionate social interactions.
In a world full of anger and hostility, what is more important than empathy? Like all human behaviour and experiences, empathy is a consequence of complex brain activity that has evolved over millions of years of evolution.
It is now clear that animals of all sorts also exhibit behaviours that indicate that they can demonstrate empathy.
“The goals of our study were to begin to delineate the complex brain mechanisms responsible for some simple forms of empathy in mice, with the hope that such information will advance understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying empathy in human beings,” said Robert Malenka, Pritzker Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, and first author of the paper.
He added that the more sophisticated understanding of the brain mechanism behind human empathy will lead to treatments that promote adaptive, socially productive empathy. This is particularly relevant in individuals with brain disorders that impair empathy and hopefully will also lead to promoting empathy in the general population.
Although the study was done on mice, the researchers used several behavioural assays that are interpreted as behavioural manifestations of primitive forms of empathy. This was specifically the social transfer of pain, the social transfer of analgesia, and the social transfer of fear.
For the pain transfer, a bystander mouse was placed in the same cage with a mouse experiencing physical pain for one hour.
When examined up to four hours later, the bystander mouse exhibited behaviours that indicated it was in pain, even though it was never physically injured. As a result, the bystander mouse understood that its friend was in pain.
Similarly, if two mice were taken which were both experiencing physical pain, and only one was given the pain-relieving analgesic morphine, before placing them in the same cage together for one hour, the mouse that was in pain but that did not receive morphine displayed behaviour that indicated its pain was reduced for up to four hours.
Thus the analgesic relief of pain experience by one mouse in pain was socially transferred to another mouse in pain.
Finally, two mice were placed in the same space together to see what happened when one mouse was given a mild electrical current to make it fearful of the other bystander mouse who was never shocked. The mouse which did not receive a shock displayed fearful behaviour when it was brought back to the little room in which it had watched its friend receive a shock. This is the social transfer of fear.
Answering a Daily News Egypt inquiry, Malenka said that he and his team aim to continue exploring how the neural activity in the anterior cingulate cortex changes during social interactions. They also aim to research how that activity influences the activity in other brain areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and amygdala.
As part of further research, the team looks to explore whether drugs can be found that may enhance empathy in mice. This is with the hope that such drugs may be useful for treating human beings who do not experience “normal” empathy.
Malenka noted that his team hopes to work with colleagues studying empathy in human beings and undertake brain imaging studies. This will look into whether similar mechanisms occur in human brains when, for example, a human subject is watching somebody in pain or who is scared.