Thursday, September 14, 2006

Empathy Behavior Observed in Mice

Humans are able to understand other people’s feelings, and it seems like animals do, too. Studies have shown over the years that animals, such as chimps, can sense what other animals of the same species are experiencing. Recent studies with mice support this idea as well.

In a study published in the June 2006 edition of Science magazine, Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, conducted several experiments with mice. Researchers injected a weak acetic acid solution into the mices' abdomens. They reported that when mice were put alone in a cage, mice had a writhing behavior as a common response to the injection. But when two or more mice were confined together and had previously met, they spent more time stretching their legs and twisting than isolated mice. In another study led by Mogil, researchers repeated the experiment and measured the time it took mice to respond to a higher concentration of acetic acid. Researchers noticed that mice would withdraw their feet when in pain, and reported that when mice were responding from the acetic acid injection, other mice would withdraw their feet faster even though they had not been injected with the solution. Finally, Mogil and his team conducted another experiment in which mice were injected with a formalin solution in one paw. It was observed than when a mouse was injected with a low dose and paired with a mouse given a high dose, the low-dose mouse licked their paws more than if it was paired with a low-dose mouse.

Can this be considered signs of empathy in mice? Researchers have different opinions. For example, Tania Singer, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of Zurich, Switzerland, has studied human behavior, and says that empathy is expressed only if you have consciousness. On the other hand, Mogil says his study implies that mice can sense in a general way. However, Singer and Mogil agree that these findings are signs of a very rough form of empathy behavior in animals.

Posted by MIS (2)

12 Comments:

At 10:16 PM, Blogger PWH said...

It's interesting how one study would claim that the mice actually felt "empathy" and some others would say that the behavior is more of a reflex response. In your opinion, who do you agree with? I know that there isn't much conclusion to be drawn from just that experiment, but I would like to know if you have any opinions on the article at all.

Thank you =]

posted by kkaye

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger Non-Course participant said...

I'm wondering about the possibility of alarm pheromones? Could the tortured mouse (I'm sorry, but that's about the best word for it) have released alarm pheromones that modified the behavior of the other mouse? Certainly the importance of pheromones to mice is well documentd (e.g. the Bruce effect).

The hardest part of the experiment to explain with pheromones is the part where the behavior was different if the mice knew each other. This too though, could possibly be explained by hightened sensitivity to a known mouse's pheromones vs. an unknown.

I wonder if the experiment could be replicated if the mich could see each other but not smell each other?

RD, non-course participant.

 
At 5:36 PM, Blogger PWH said...

You mentioned in passing that the mice had always met prior to being placed in a cage together. I am wondering if the amount of time they have been in contact would have an effect on their level of 'empathy'. Would the mouse react more strongly if it was the parent or sibling versus a stranger. Interesting topic choice.

EBW

 
At 12:33 AM, Blogger PWH said...

Im not against animal research. Especially for the greater good, but injecting mice with acetic acid just to see if other mice feel empathy just doesn't sit well with me. There had to have been other ways they could have done a study on this other than by torturing the mice as someone else already stated.


Posted by DarkStarSpace

 
At 9:21 PM, Blogger PWH said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9:23 PM, Blogger PWH said...

I was wondering how long the mice were put together prior to being injected with acetic acid? I am curious to know how long each mouse was housed with others? I was also wondering if two mice were housed for a week or whether they were housed for a month? This to me would determine whether the mice would feel empathy, if they were housed prior to the experiment. If two mice were housed for a month, this probably could form a tighter bond between the mice, and could help indicate whether empathy could be felt or not.

JLW

 
At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Juan Carlos Ortega said...

Saludos from Puerto Rico...

Indeed, in terms of emotions, empathy as we know requieres consciousness. However, how about a more instinctively induced empathy? Maybe the specimen senses something that we do not know. How? Only they would know. Maybe there is something they notice from their fellow specimen and which we are yet to discover.

 
At 12:04 AM, Blogger PWH said...

The idea that animals can feel what another is feeing is not far feched. I have not done research to confirm these findings but, when my kitten was very ill the older one would care for him and clean the kittens fur. Then unfortunatly, the kitten died of an abdominal hernia,the other cat was experiencing strange similar symptoms like the kitten. So is it that they feel the orthers pain or maybe they mimic the others actions.

KJCV

 
At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea of empathy depending on consciousness has come up a couple of times here. Singer, quoted in the original post, says that "empathy is expressed only if you have consciousness." This sentiment is echoed by commenter Juan Carlos Ortega.

The implication seems to be that mice are not conscious and therefore not capable of true empathy, despite the experimental evidence presented. I'm not sure where the idea that animals other than humans cannot be conscious has come from. If the reluctance to assign consciousness to other beings is simply due to caution because it is a difficult quantity to measure, then fine. However, most of the statements seem to be in the form of Singer's remark, stating that such a thing could not be possible. Is there any evidence for this claim that other animals, especially mammals are not conscious? It seems a curious idea indeed that creatures built out of nearly identical parts arranged in ways that are so similar would not be likely to share the property of consciousness. The phenomena of consciousness is so poorly understood in humans, that I would think it might be difficult to design an experiment to answer the question of consciousness existing in other beings.

 
At 2:31 AM, Blogger PWH said...

Yes, I agree with Jeffrey Mogil. This is a very good sign of empathy behavior seen in mice. Several course participants have asked or mentioned how long mice had been leaving together before they were injected with the acetic acid solution. Actually, the article that I read about this did not mention for how long mice were leaving together. But this is a very interesting question.

I agree with course participant “DarkStarSpace” about how cruel this experiment was. I completely agree that another method may be used to see how mice would react to it. For example, I am doing research with termites, and the worst part of it is when termites need to be sacrificed. Many people say that termites are just bugs, but for me are leaving creatures as well.

Well, the last thing I have to say is that I want to thank you for your great comments.

 
At 2:37 AM, Blogger PWH said...

Yes, I agree with Jeffrey Mogil. This is a very good sign of empathy behavior seen in mice. Several course participants have asked or mentioned how long mice had been leaving together before they were injected with the acetic acid solution. Actually, the article that I read about this did not mention for how long mice were leaving together. But this is a very interesting question.

I agree with course participant “DarkStarSpace” about how cruel this experiment was. I completely agree that another method may be used to see how mice would react to it. For example, I am doing research with termites, and the worst part of it is when termites need to be sacrificed. Many people say that termites are just bugs, but for me are leaving creatures as well.

Well, the last thing I have to say is that I want to thank you for your great comments.

MIS

 
At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why the mice who weren't injected would react in a similar manner, empathy doesn't seem to have any biological advantage, it's mainly a means to comfort another whose ill, I fail to see how that would be something that would aid in survival. The interesting part of this study was that they performed these behaviors much less when alone. I wonder if the mimicry of the ill mouse helps promote the behavior.

Posted by MJP

 

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