“I feel your pain.” Anyone in pain appreciates such an expression of empathy, but could these words be truer than we realize?
Arguably, one of the most underappreciated designs in animals are the social transfers of emotions and feelings. Mice experiments conducted by three behavioral scientists at Stanford University led by Monique Smith sought not only to determine the degree and extent of social transfer of empathy but also the means and pathways.1 Their results carry implications for evolution and creation.
Biologists typically define empathy as the adoption of another individual’s sensory and emotional state. Field studies establish that humans are not alone in expressing and experiencing empathy. Empathy has been observed in nearly every social mammalian species. Hence, it is possible to use social mammals as proxies to develop therapeutic tools for human neural disorders.
The three behavioral scientists chose mice as their proxy since it is known that for both humans and rodents the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in the brain encodes information about the affective state of other individuals.2
In one experiment, Smith’s team injected a drug into a mouse that induced long-lasting arthritis-like pain. The experimenters allowed another mouse, a cage-mate of the injected mouse, to socially interact with the injected mouse for one hour. This one-hour exposure resulted in the bystander mouse experiencing the pain of the injected mouse for the next four hours. When the injected mouse received a morphine shot with subsequent pain relief, the bystander mouse almost immediately experienced relief from the socially transmitted pain.