"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.
In a second experiment, Smith's team repeatedly shocked one mouse while a second nearby mouse watched. Both mice exhibited the same freeze posture response to the shock-induced fear.
Through the use of specific drugs and circuit neuroscience tools, Smith's team determined that different neural pathways in the brain were involved in the social transfers of pain and pain relief compared to fear. The neural pathway for pain and pain relief is from the ACC to the nucleus accumbens (NAc), whereas the neural pathway for fear is from the ACC to the basolateral amygdala (BLA).
Potential Treatment Applications
Both chronic and temporal pain from severe trauma pose therapeutic challenges. Smith's team's experiments indicate that what works for mice might also work for humans. Someone experiencing severe pain may experience relief simply by observing another human with whom they have had significant social interaction. Such social interaction could substantially reduce reliance on pain-relieving drugs and help combat addictions. The immediate and long-term health cost savings would be substantial.
Another major potential health benefit arising from the research lies in the treatment of brain injuries, brain disorders, and genetic brain handicaps where human subjects have lost some empathetic capabilities. Using animal subjects to determine the specific locations in the brain and pathways in the brain responsible for expressions and experience of empathy would greatly assist medical researchers in finding therapies, and even cures, for empathy-related brain disorders.
Life Design Implications
The origin of emotions and empathy in animals poses a huge challenge to naturalistic evolution. While certain chemicals can govern the degree to which emotions and empathy is expressed or experienced, no deterministic explanation for the origin of emotions and empathy has yet passed scientific scrutiny and testing. From a creation perspective, Genesis 1 uses the Hebrew verb, bara, meaning in the context of Genesis 1, to create something brand new that did not exist on Earth before. The creation of animals capable of using emotions and empathy to bond with one another and to sacrifice for one another indicates a nonphysical origin for emotions and empathy.
Birds and mammals have been endowed with the capacity to express and experience emotions and empathy such that they are able to form life-long bonds with one another and make sacrifices to meet one another's needs. Such endowment makes it possible to tame these animals so that they serve and/or please humans. A discovery like this one, where scientists use animal designs to find ways to relieve pain marks one great way that animals serve us. The fact that humans, birds, and mammals share in common many design features relevant to the expression and experience of emotions and empathy challenges an evolutionary origin but supports creation.
- Monique L. Smith, Naoyuki Asada, and Robert C. Malenka, "Anterior Cingulate Inputs to Nucleus Accumbens Control the Social Transfer of Pain and Analgesia," Science 371, no. 6525 (January 8, 2021): 153–59, doi:20.1126/science.abe3040.
- Monique L. Smith et al., "Anterior Cingulate Cortex Contributes to Alcohol Withdrawal-Induced and Socially Transferred Hyperalgesia," eNeuro 4, no. 4 (July/August 2017): id. ENEURO.0087-17.2017, doi:10.1523/ENEURO.0087-17.2017; Daejong Jeon et al., "Observational Fear Learning Involves Affective Pain System and Cav1.2 Ca2+ Channels in ACC," Nature Neuroscience 13 (April 2010): 482–88, doi:10.1038/nn.2504; Maria Carrillo et al., "Emotional Mirror Neurons in the Rat’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex," Current Biology 29, no. 8 (April 22, 2019): 1301–12.e6, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.03.024.