Wandering empathy

The Scientific American blog feature, "Mind Matters," returns this week with a discussion of animal empathy involving primatologist Frans de Waal and neurobiologist Peggy Mason. There's some description of experimental results and of what it all means. Here's de Waal on mouse empathy:

The experiment involved putting pairs of mice through a so-called "writhing test." In each trial, two mice were placed in two transparent Plexiglas tubes so that they could see one another. Either one or both mice were injected with diluted acetic acid, which is known to cause a mild stomach ache. Mice respond to this discomfort with characteristic stretching movements. The researchers found that an injected mouse would show more of this movement if its partner displayed it than it would if its partner had not been injected.
Significantly, this increased display occurred only in mouse pairs who were cage mates.
Male (and not female) mice showed an interesting additional phenomenon when witnessing a strange male mouse in pain: its own pain sensitivity actually dropped. The counter-empathic reaction occurred only in male pairs that didn't know each other, which are probably the pairs with the greatest degree of rivalry. Was that rivalry suppressing their reaction, or did they actually feel less empathy for a strange rival?

OK, so maybe if the mice are empathetic to us, we'll have some hope when they finally make their move toward world domination. Hey, maybe empathy is actually a necessary side-effect of social intelligence. Then, breeding them to be super-intelligent would actually protect us!

But of course, de Waal himself has been important in showing the relationship between social intelligence and deception.


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Optimus Prime, photo by Mike Bernardo, Creative Commons license, available on Flickr


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Megatron, photo by Ramen Junkie, Creative Commons license, available on Flickr

Maybe there's more here than meets the eye?

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"Pan on Megatron", photo by Tai Toh, Creative Commons license, available on Flickr