Humans aren’t the only ones, as it seems small rodents can console each other in difficult times when one is stressed or in pain. Empathy is one of the traits not often seen in animals, with a few choice exceptions. However, it appears that we aren’t the only ones with such a brain mechanism.
A team of researchers have added another non-human species that has abilities of consoling another of their kind. So far, such capabilities have been found only in elephants, primates, dogs, and dolphins. This implies that it does require perhaps a bigger brain with more complex connections and cognitive processes. But the same trait was found in small, social rodents, so perhaps it’s not.
The experiment was conducted on prairie voles, a type of small, social rodent that mates for life and both actually participate in raising their offspring. They took members of the same family and isolated them from each other. One group received small shocks. Upon reuniting them with the others, it was noted that prairie voles licked those who had been harmed much sooner and for much longer durations. It appears that they picked up on their stress levels and pain, moving to console them.
That’s a behavior never noticed before in rodents. In fact, by measuring hormone levels, the researchers found that prairie voles were stressed when they couldn’t console their loved ones. Furthermore, when they had the occasion of displaying empathy, the part of the brain that lit up the most was the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s the same region activated in humans when we observe another person in pain.
The levels of oxytocin were also elevated, which is the hormone associated to the bond between a mother and her child. When the oxytocin receptor was blocked, however, the prairie voles did not make the same attempts at consoling.
According to Dr. Larry Young, the ability to show empathy implies two processes. One is to detect stress and pain in others, and the other is to actually act on it. By studying prairie voles, perhaps they can find the precise neural system that prompts such actions. The findings could be crucial to therapies for patients who have impaired emotional abilities, such as autism.
Oxytocin supplements could be just one factor, to be combined with behavioral therapy. It would be like “teaching the brain how to be empathetic”. Kindness is something that comes natural for most humans, along with some animals. Prairie voles were just the most recent ones to join the list.
According to Dacher Keltner, maybe humans aren’t born to be selfish. Perhaps it’s our kindness and empathy to others that has helped us evolve and become so successful as a species. In fact, this would attack Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and survival of the fittest. Keltner calls it ‘survival of the kindest’.
Image source: vox-cdn.com