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.
That’s a necessary first step toward empathy, but it’s not sufficient, says neuroscientist Jean Decety of the University of Chicago in Illinois, a co-author of the new study. To truly empathize, one needs to understand on some level what the other individual is experiencing, as when a mother senses what’s upsetting her child. Only then can she help, Decety says.
by Dan Ferber