Pierce - Mice in the Sink: On the Expression of Empathy in...

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Pierce, page 1 Mice in the Sink: On the Expression of Empathy in Animals Jessica Pierce CeAnn Lambert, head of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, witnessed a small act of heroism in a sink in her garage. Two baby mice had become trapped in the sink overnight, unable to scramble up the slick sides. They were exhausted and frightened. CeAnn filled a small lid with water and placed it in the sink. One of the mice hopped over and drank, but the other seemed too exhausted to move and remained crouched in the same spot. The stronger mouse found a piece of food. He picked it up and carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could drink. CeAnn created a ramp with a piece of wood and the revived mice were soon able to scramble out of the sink. What happened in that sink? Did one mouse actually understand that the other mouse was in trouble and find a way to help? Did the tiny creature display a kind of empathy? It is tempting to write stories of this sort off as an overexcited imagination reading far too much intention and emotion into the behavior of animals. Yet it is also possible to read too little into the animals we watch. Perhaps animals have the capacity to feel sorry for another mouse in distress, and to offer help. Indeed, there is mounting scientific evidence that animals—even rodents—have the capacity to feel empathy. In June of 2006, researchers reported in the journal Science the first unequivocal evidence for empathy between adult, non-primate mammals. Dale Langford, of McGill University, and his colleagues demonstrated that mice suffer distress when they watch another mouse experience pain. Langford and his team injected one or both members of a pair of adult mice with acetic acid, which causes a severely painful burning sensation. The researchers discovered that mice who watch their peers in pain were more sensitive to pain themselves. A mouse injected with acid writhed more violently if his or her partner had also been injected and was writhing in pain. Not only did the mice who watched cage mates in distress become more sensitive to the same painful stimuli, they became generally more sensitive to pain, showing a heightened reaction, for example, to heat under their paws. The researchers speculated that mice probably used visual cues to generate the empathic response , which is interesting since mice normally rely most heavily on olfactory communication. Frans de Waal, a world renown primatologist, said of Langford’s research, “This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species” (Carey 2006). This data confirms that empathy is an ancient capacity, probably present in all mammals. Jaak Panksepp, an expert on animal emotion, remarked, “If it turns out that the ‘empathetic’ effect in mice is mediated by the same brain mechanisms as human empathy, then the evidence would be truly compelling that
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This note was uploaded on 01/31/2012 for the course ENGL 1050H taught by Professor Adkins during the Fall '07 term at UGA.

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Pierce - Mice in the Sink: On the Expression of Empathy in...

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