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I love it.

The journal Science reports today on University of Chicago research showing that rats are capable of empathy — or something. 

The experiment demonstrated that, when two rats were put in a large cage, and one of the rats was confined to a tight restrainer, the other rat would figure out how to release its neighbor from captivity and do so, even when the cage was set up so that the other rat exited into a different area, preventing social interaction.

What is more, if confronted with a second restrainer containing five chocolate chips, the rescue rat would open both restrainers, but typically save some of the chocolate (an average of 1 1/2 chips) for its formerly captive colleague. With no other rat around, the free rat would eat them all.

Does this mean rats are naturally empathetic — that they care about other rats? Researchers noted that one rat would release the other even when there was no reward involved other than the apparent feelings of satisfaction from having helped the other — or perhaps, the relief of no longer having to hear its squeals of distress.

Some rats were better at it than others, and gender appeared to play a role: while all six female rats in the study learned to free their restrained cagemate, seven of 26 male rats in the study never figured it out. Researchers don’t think those rats were less clever or caring, but perhaps less capable of overcoming their own aquired stress in order to act. 

Scientists, as one might imagine, believe the findings might provide clues to understanding empathetic behavior among humans. A Washington Post report on the article cited Jeffrey Mogil, a McGill University scientist who previously demonstrated that mice are capable of “emotional contagion” (putting one mouse under stress raises stress levels in other mice). Mogil said one of the big questions is whether the liberating rat’s action is intended to relieve its own discomfort at the situation, or to help the other rat. 

“It’s more likely to be the former,” Mogil said. “But even if it is the former, I’m not sure that’s so different from humans.”

Ah … there’s the thought. When we humans act empathetically, whether it’s contributing to a hunger fund or volunteering at a homeless shelter or doing a favor for a neighbor, are we motivated mainly by pure concern for the other, or by the good (and guilt-reducing) feelings we get from being helpful?

In the long run, I’m not sure we can fully separate the two, or that we need to. Whatever the motivation, following the many biblical injunctions to love our neighbors and aid the less fortunate is far better than closing our eyes and ears to their needs.

Even a rat knows that.

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