A ground-breaking paper authored by Israeli scientist Inbal Bartal and set to be published this weekend sheds new light on rats' ability to feel empathy.
Bartal was among a team of three researchers at the University of Chicago who conducted the innovative study that has implications on the study of brain structures that underlie empathy. The scientists discovered that rats not only feel empathy for one another, but are even prone to helping each other.
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The team observed that rats that had learned to operate a mechanism to open cages would consistently choose to release a trapped friend over opening another cage that held a chocolate reward for themselves. Furthermore, half of the time they even shared the chocolate with the trapped rat.
"The three years that led to this study have not been easy, but I'm thrilled that it is receiving so much attention within the scientific community and in the American media," Bartal told Israel Hayom on Thursday.
The rats were not trained in any way. The researchers concluded that they were motivated by an innate drive to free their peers. It took the rats an average of six days to master the relatively complex task of opening the cage.
This study is the first to show rats actively helping other rats. Previous studies demonstrated the existence of a more basic form of empathy, called emotional contagion, which motivates rats to display signs of distress at the sight of another rat suffering – for example, being electrocuted.
This experiment provides a basis for further research into aspects of empathy and social behavior that cannot be tested on humans for ethical reasons. Scientists can also use this model to explore the neurobiological basis of empathy as well as the genetic, as opposed to external, factors that influence our social behavior.
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