Empathy research is a big topic in neuroscience these days, with a growing number of studies focused on how emotions figure into people's thoughts and actions. One of the main things we've learned is that various non-human species are also able to recognize the distress of others and respond in a comforting way — suggesting that this may be something in the neural wiring of the brain rather than something that is learned.
The latest study on this topic, published in the journal Science, involves prairie voles, who are known for having strong family bonds similar to those of humans. Vole mates tend to form lifelong relationships and work together to care for their offspring.
Researchers Larry Young and James Burkett from Emory University ran an experiment that involved separating the vole families and exposing only some of them to mild shocks. When the researchers reunited the voles with their relatives, they found that the voles tried to soothe the ones that were shocked — as these animals do by licking them — longer than those who were not shocked.
Then the researchers ran the experiment again after blocking the animals' receptors for oxytocin, which is thought to play a role in social recognition and maternal behaviors. They found that this stopped the consoling behavior.
"The highly social and monogamous prairie vole greatly increases partner-directed grooming toward familiar conspecifics (but not strangers) that have experienced an unobserved stressor, providing social buffering," the researchers wrote.
The researchers said that breaking down the role of oxytocin in empathy may help us better understand and treat psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, as well as developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, that appear to be related to a disruption of a person's ability to detect and respond to the emotions of others. The researchers suggested that this indicates that oxytocin may improve social engagement in autism.
"Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species," Young said, according to the publication. "We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans."
Other experts have even more lofty goals for empathy research, and some have even suggested that it could hold the key to our survival.
In a lengthy piece in 2013, the New Yorker reported that two recent books — “The Empathic Civilization” (Penguin), by Jeremy Rifkin, and “Humanity on a Tightrope” (Rowman & Littlefield), by Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein — "make the powerful argument that empathy has been the main driver of human progress, and that we need more of it if our species is to survive":
Ehrlich and Ornstein want us “to emotionally join a global family.” Rifkin calls for us to make the leap to “global empathic consciousness.” He sees this as the last best hope for saving the world from environmental destruction, and concludes with the plaintive question “Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avoid planetary collapse?” These are sophisticated books, which provide extensive and accessible reviews of the scholarly literature on empathy. And, as befits the spirit of the times, they enthusiastically champion an increase in empathy as a cure for humanity’s ills.
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