Empathy lets us feel another person’s pain and drives us to help ease it. But is empathy a uniquely human trait? For decades researchers have debated whether nonhuman animals possess this attribute. Now a new study shows that rats will free a trapped cagemate in distress. The results mean that these rodents can be used to help determine the genetic and physiological underpinnings of empathy in people.
The rescuers did not seem to have an ulterior motive for freeing their trapped cage-mate: they continued to do so even when the experimental set-up was changed so that the two rats would not be able to benefit from touching and interacting after the liberation. Moreover, the plaintive calls of the trapped rat were too infrequent to suggest that the free rat acted simply to get some peace and quiet. Learn more here, here, here or here.