Saturday, January 23, 2016

Animals have the ability to think and empathize with others

Recent studies and observations show that empathy, an ability that many think only humans capable, is a trait that other animals also exhibit.

Voles, along with many other animals have been shown capable of exhibiting empathy
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

While in the past, such observations have been deemed controversial, more studies have been coming to the fore rendering humans’ former beliefs that animals are nothing more than “mindless automata” questionable. Researchers have been pairing science alongside philosophical queries concerning animal subjectivity and they are finding that their observations are not solely the product of anthropomorphizing projections.

For example, Dr. Larry Young, a researcher at Emory University witnessed what looks like consoling behavior in prairie voles, reports The Atlantic, Jan. 21. In an experiment where two voles were placed in separate cages, one received a small electric shock and then, when it was reunited with its mate, received ten minutes worth of licking and grooming that seemed to calm it down.

Researchers found that voles witnessing the distress of their cohorts take on the behavior exhibited by their stressed companions. For example, a vole not receiving the shock would continuously groom itself and freeze whenever it heard a tone that heralded an impending shock. Those same voles exhibited higher stress hormone levels when tested even though they had not been shocked. Then, when reunited with their companions, they would groom distressed animals.

Voles are not alone in their show of concern and feeling for one another. Elephants conduct funerary rituals over their dead cohorts, burying deceased elephants with leaves and grass and then holding week long vigils. The recognition of their loss does not end there. Elephants visit the bones of those who passed for many years after burying them.
Rats have been shown to exhibit empathy for their cohorts, freeing trapped rats before pursuing any personal rewards. Dolphins have been shown to not only exhibit love and empathy for their own kind, but for other animals and humans, as well. Many animals have exhibited metacognition and still others such as chickens, and cows have been shown to have emotions.

According to an article published in July by National Geographic, animals think and feel. They have consciousness. Environmental writer Carl Safina recently wrote about animal consciousness in his book Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel and explains why it’s important to acknowledge animal consciousness. He also explains how neurological science will most likely make humans’ former belief that animals are incapable of such abilities as love and empathy obsolete.

*originally published on the now defunct

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