Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New questions about animal empathy

Date:
December 8, 2011
Source:
Washington State University
Summary:
The emotions of rats and mice and the mental infrastructure behind them promise to illuminate the nature of human emotions, including empathy and nurturance, a neuroscientist says.

The emotions of rats and mice and the mental infrastructure behind them promise to illuminate the nature of human emotions, including empathy and nurturance, a Washington State University neuroscientist writes in a recent issue of the journal Science.

Related Articles


Jaak Panksepp, Baily endowed chair of animal well-being science and professor of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacy and physiology, makes his case in a Perspectives column responding to research in which rats helped other rats with no explicit rewards at stake. The research, Panksepp writes, "raises questions about the affective experiences of animals other than humans."

Panksepp, who has pioneered work in how core emotions stem from deep, ancient parts of the brain, said there remains a good deal of resistance in the scientific community towards the notion that "nonhuman animals have affective experiences, and that these can and should be studied in empirical ways."

But he argues that recent advances in neuroscience are letting researchers look at how animal affect, or emotions, control learning, memory and behavior.

"Simplified models of empathy, as in mice and rats, offer new inroads for understanding our own social-emotional nature and nurture," he writes. "Such knowledge may eventually help us promote nurturant behaviors in humans."

Panksepp elaborated on his essay in a recent correspondence with the Washington State University News Center:

Q: Humans are under the impression that they are the animal with the greatest feelings and certainly have the greatest capacity to empathize with other creatures. Is this a mistaken assumption? Why?

Panksepp: There is no question that all other animals have emotional feelings. The science is strong for that. And all our strongest basic emotional feelings come from brain networks all mammals share. Unfortunately, we can't scientifically compare the intensity or greatness of feelings across species.

However, because we have a greater capacity to think than most, we can do more with our emotions than other animals. We can write music, create poetry. And because of our higher mental abilities, we also have greater capacities for both empathy among strangers and cruelty. There are hints that across modern history empathy has been winning out over cruelty. But then one looks at the 20th century and wonders.

Still, the only way that empathy will continue to grow is if our higher mind gets in touch with the better angels of our lower minds -- with maternal care and social joy being among the most important.

Q: If I read you correctly, the logic of attributing empathy to other, lower order animals grows out of the way our brain reflects our evolution, with higher order thinking and feeling on the more recently evolved outer layers but key, core emotions lying deep in the center. So while an animal may have a more rudimentary brain, its brain still has core functions that can include empathy. Right?

Panksepp: Indeed, we mammals share the basic tools for feeling and learning and perhaps even thinking. And empathy is reflected at all these levels. But our capacity for empathy would probably collapse without the basic emotions we share with other mammals.

Emotional contagion, a primitive form of empathic feelings, seems universal among mammals. Thinking about what others are thinking about and feeling seems much more developed in us than any other creature, except perhaps those with brains as big and complex as ours, like dolphins. Indeed, dolphins have certain brain areas that are more enlarged than ours -- higher emotional regions of the brain that probably are needed for higher forms of empathy and positive fellow feelings.

Q: Why are people resisting the notion that nonhumans can have affective experiences?

Panksepp: I don't think animal lovers have much doubt about the fact that animals have emotional feelings. Many scientists have little more than doubts. Thus, science has not yet reached agreement on how to study the many kinds of basic feelings we have and that many other animals surely have.

It is clear that when we finally understand their emotions, we will begin to have lasting scientific knowledge about our own. Only modern brain science can give us answers to questions such as, "What are emotions?" and "What are affective feelings?" It is clear that we can have many types of affective experiences -- feeling good (positive) and bad (negative) in various ways.

Certain positive and negative feelings are aroused by our sensory channels, like various forms of pain and taste. Others arise from inside our bodies, like hunger and thirst signals to the brain. And then there are emotional feelings that arise largely from complex networks that reside completely within our brains, but which move our bodies intensely in various ways.

These last kinds of feelings are most important for understanding our moods and psychiatric disorders. We now have a great deal of knowledge about which brain systems generate various basic emotional feelings -- experiences like desire, anger, fear, lust, motherly love, grief and playfulness. Once we understand the brain chemistries that control these kinds of emotional feelings in animals, we will better understand ourselves, as well as develop much better medicines for human emotional problems.

Q: You have a zinger of an ending. If we better understand the affective processes of mouse and rat brains, we might be better able to help humans be more nurturing. I read it this way: Humans may have the greatest capacity for compassion and empathy on earth, owing in part to our consciousness, but at times we behave worse than rats. If we understand the core, instinctual capacity for empathy among all animals, we might be better humans in the humanistic sense.

Panksepp: Yes, I think the more we know about the emotions of other animals, the more we will understand our own emotions. Without the ancient emotional systems that all mammals share, our ability to be conscious is drastically impaired. The more we know about our animal emotions, which support the rest of our mental apparatus, the more ideas we will have about how to be better people. As we follow the old philosophical advice to "know thyself," the more options we will have for being good to others and the world.

But until quite recently, an enormous gap in our knowledge has been any solid scientific knowledge about our emotional nature. Neuroscience is changing that. And when we really know ourselves, we will be able to think about ourselves more clearly as creatures of the world.

What we do with this knowledge will vary from one mind to another. My hope is that our desire to care about others will grow. To do that well is one of the best ways to take care of yourself. . .and the world.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Washington State University. The original article was written by Eric Sorensen. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Washington State University. "New questions about animal empathy." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 December 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142017.htm>.
Washington State University. (2011, December 8). New questions about animal empathy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142017.htm
Washington State University. "New questions about animal empathy." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142017.htm (accessed December 21, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

AFP (Dec. 19, 2014) In Yarumal, a village in N. Colombia, Alzheimer's has ravaged a disproportionately large number of families. A genetic "curse" that may pave the way for research on how to treat the disease that claims a new victim every four seconds. Duration: 02:42 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) A double-amputee makes history by becoming the first person to wear and operate two prosthetic arms using only his mind. Jen Markham has the story. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Newsy (Dec. 18, 2014) Harvard researchers found children whose mothers were exposed to high pollution levels in the third trimester were twice as likely to develop autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Yoga Could Be As Beneficial For The Heart As Walking, Biking

Yoga Could Be As Beneficial For The Heart As Walking, Biking

Newsy (Dec. 17, 2014) Yoga can help your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart just as much as biking and walking does, a new study suggests. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

More Coverage


Helping Your Fellow Rat: Rodents Show Empathy-Driven Behavior, Evidence Suggests

Dec. 8, 2011 The first evidence of empathy-driven helping behavior in rodents has been observed in laboratory rats that repeatedly free companions from a restraint, according to a new study by University of ... read more

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins