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Rats are often cited as some people’s number one fear, a gross sewer-dweller that many would never want to come face to face with. However, rats could be the key to solving an issue in modern human psychology.
A fascinating concept of mammalian biology is the psychological functions that are universal among animals and humans alike. Recent studies in rats, of all animals, are developing the idea of empathy in mammals that are not human. According to past research, rats were shown to remember those who helped them, and would generally act friendlier toward them among other human-like feelings such as regret. Furthermore, in a new experiment, rats were shown to change their actions to avoid harming their peers.
Trained to pull levers to receive food, the rats pulled levers that would occasionally shock a neighboring rat. If this happened, they would stop and try a different one in hopes of avoiding afflicting pain. The concept at hand is called “harm aversion” and is only really seen in humans, at least until now. The important thing about this new information however, is that both human and rat brains control these emotions in the same areas.
This is the first instance where a mammal other than humans had empathy controlled in the anterior cingulate cortexes or ACC. Not only does this help support the evolutionary theory of a common ancestor, but it also opens up a wide array of possibilities to understand those with disorders such as psychopathy and sociopathy. This study provided a large range of reactions from the different rats ranging from stress to indifference, which coincides with the individuality of human reactions. There’s no current effective drug to treat violence in antisocial groups of the population, but the possibility to test on rats is wildly important. In a second section of the experiment, the scientists numbed the anterior cingulate cortexes of the rats, the portion controlling empathy, and the rats forwent all feelings of empathy they previously had.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Tests such as these used on rats would be beneficial to not only scientists but humanity as it would allow us to gather an understanding of how these impulses should work in humans. Because of the similarities between the brains of us and them, they could be used as test subjects rather than human testing.
This also calls into question the psychology behind motivation in animals. Is it a self-serving desire to feel better about one’s self or is it truly to help the fellow man that we reach out in empathetic help. Interestingly enough, this can be connected to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs and how we are inherently motivated as mammals whether it be for personal esteem or physiological gain.
It is incredibly fascinating to be able to seemingly enter the brain of another species and see the similarities that we share while being wildly different. Harkening back to the genetics unit, there is evidence of a common ancestor and the similarity of genetic coding, but it’s very interesting to see it in practice and affecting the brain rather than physical, visual attributes.