Shocking Behavior

One of the characteristics that many of us are proud of as humans, and would say that it is an essential prerequisite for a civilized society, is our predisposition for empathy or emotional contagion. So if we witness something unpleasant happening to someone else we have an emotional response. The level, of course, may depend on exactly what is happening to whom. This characteristic is important for such things as bringing up our children, interacting with customers and most of our social interactions.

We learn as babies to cry if we hear others cry and we carry on with this emotional contagion when, as kids, we scare each other with ghost stories or, as adults, when we panic buy when he hear that there is a shortage of some commodity.

Genuine empathy, though, goes somewhat deeper so that we understand the causes of our emotion and prosocial behavior results. Currently, the neuroscientists are still at the guessing stage in understanding how these responses are differentiating in the brain.

But before we become too smug about the proclivities of our species, we should be aware that mice and rats are also empathic beings. Atsak et al have presented a study showing this with rats (1).

If a rat wandering about in a cage gets an electric shock to its feet, it does two things. It gives an ultrasonic squeak and it freezes waiting to see what will happen next. Now, a rat witness to this event will also freeze if they have had a foot shock in their past lives. Ones who haven’t, wonder what all the fuss is about.

Things become more interesting. Once the victim sees its neighbor freezing with it, it freezes for longer. Just as we make more of an event when someone shows lots of sympathy. With the rats the squeaking didn’t do much. Experienced witnesses took no notice when recorded squeaks were played back, indicating that they were being empathic when they vicariously froze and weren’t showing emotional contagion.

We should keep this understanding of empathy in mind with our dealings with other animals as it’s a safe bet that empathy goes broader than people, rats and mice.


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