Rats may feel concern when cage mates are trapped. But, like people, they don’t always care enough to help.
AGONY IS CONTAGIOUS. If you drop a thick textbook on your toes, circuits in your brain’s pain center come alive. If you pick it up and accidentally drop it on my toes, hurting me, an overlapping neural neighborhood will light up in your brain again.
“There’s a physiological mechanism for emotional contagion of negative responses like stress and pain and fear,” says Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a neuroscientist at Tel-Aviv University in Israel. That’s empathy. Researchers debate to this day whether empathy is a uniquely human ability. But more scientists are finding evidence suggesting it exists widely, particularly in social mammals like rats. For the past decade, Bartal has studied whether—and why—lab rodents might act on that commiseration to help pals in need.