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A paper published today in Science demonstrates that the rodents will liberate trapped cage-mates — even when they have nothing to gain 1.

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There is a growing body of research showing that animals respond to the emotions of others. But it wasn't certain whether rats could suppress their own distress in order to aid another rat. Lead author Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, thinks her work is a significant step towards settling this question. Following a two-week introduction period, pairs of rats were put inside an arena. One was trapped inside a central restrainer, while the other roamed free in the larger space.

By day six or seven, on average, the roaming rat learned to free the trapped rat. The free rats seldom opened empty containers or those containing a toy rat. When chocolate was introduced to the mix, there was no difference in the time taken to free the trapped cage-mate, despite pitting freeing the trapped cage-mate against getting a tasty treat. Furthermore, the helper rats did not eat all the chocolate chips. Instead, they often allowed the trapped rats to eat some. In , Mogil and his colleagues showed that mice who watch their cage-mates in pain are more sensitive to pain themselves — an effect dubbed 'emotional contagion' 2.

These findings will stoke efforts to determine where on an incremental spectrum of empathy various animals fall. From emotional contagion to prosocial behaviour voluntary acts to help others to the cognitive empathy understanding the feelings of others displayed by humans. But others say that these findings are much ado about nothing.


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At issue is the definition of empathy. The typical response of a distressed rat is to freeze and not move. The rat has to understand that its situation is different from that of the trapped rat, suppress the urge to freeze and realize that it can do something to create a different outcome, she says. The real question, says Povinelli, is what is motivating the rats to free their cage-mates. Nov 16, AM. Ciaran 46 books view quotes. Jul 09, PM.

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