Description: How would you define empathy? Would feeling another person’s feelings capture it or at least part of it? Some sort of positive response would likely also need to be included in the definition, but it could be seen to follow from the first part. So how do we feel what someone else feels? We could figure it out based on our own previous experience or based on what we have heard, seen or read about other people’s feelings. However, that would require conscious reflection and a fair bit of experience not to mention the desire to pay attention to opportunities to learn about others’ feelings and, if all of that is true then would it make sense to say that rats have empathy? If rats DO have empathy how might that work or develop and what might it suggest about human empathy? Think about that for a minute and then read the article linked below to find out about rat empathy
Source: I feel you: Emotional mirror neurons found in the rat, Science News, Science Daily.
Date: April 11, 2019
Photo Credit: Pakhnyushchyy/Fotolia
So, rats have neurons in the cingulate cortex of their brains that fire when they feel pain but that also fire when they see another rat experiencing the same pain. That does, indeed, sound like it could be related to empathy or at least to a necessary prerequisite to a full blown empathic response that involves noticing AND then responding to pain in another. This would suggest that we do not need to figure out what others are feeling and that empathy perhaps need not rely entirely on higher order thinking. It also suggests that the roots of empathy may be more basic and less uniquely human that we may have thought. Oh, and here is another interesting finding. Psychopaths, who seem able to think about what other people feel but who do not seem to empathically share those feelings have structural and functional abnormalities in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area in rats’ brains where the mirror neuron for pain were located (see the Koenigs reference below). Curious huh?.
Questions for Discussion:
- What is empathy and how uniquely human would you say it is?
- Does it make sense to call the firing of mirror neurons in rats, empathy?
- How do mirror neurons fit within an account of empathy in humans?
References (Read Further):
Maria Carrillo, Yinging Han, Filippo Migliorati, Ming Liu, Valeria Gazzola, Christian Keysers. Emotional Mirror Neurons in the Rat’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Current Biology, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.03.024
Fabbri-Destro, M., & Rizzolatti, G. (2008). Mirror neurons and mirror systems in monkeys and humans. Physiology, 23(3), 171-179. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/57d5/1333dd927d65670e4e3ea02ccb31336df279.pdf
Gallese, V., Eagle, M. N., & Migone, P. (2007). Intentional attunement: Mirror neurons and the neural underpinnings of interpersonal relations. Journal of the American psychoanalytic Association, 55(1), 131-175. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.969.9728&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Williams, J. H., Whiten, A., Suddendorf, T., & Perrett, D. I. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 25(4), 287-295. http://cogprints.org/2613/1/mn.pdf
Koenigs, M. (2012). The role of prefrontal cortex in psychopathy. Rev Neurosci. 23(3): 253–262. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3937069/