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Some Animal Research Snark

Study shows mice do feel empathy, researchers do not.

A Canadian research team in the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University discovered that a mouse's response to pain is intensified in the presence of another mouse that is also in pain. In addition, according to a study published in the June 30th issue of Science, the mice appear to synchronize their pain responses.

"Both of those things, ultimately, are suggestive of empathy," said Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor and one of the study's lead authors.

... According to Mogil, scientists may be able to use the mouse model to more closely study the mechanism of empathy, particularly the genes, neurochemicals, and brain areas involved. The finding could be useful for studying human conditions such as autism, which is associated with a reduced ability to empathize.

"Empathy is a very hot topic with humans, but the problem with humans is that we can't really do any experiments on them," Mogil said. "You can stick them under an imager and see what parts of the brain lights up, and that's about it."

We've discovered that mice are even more like humans in the way they think and experience the world. It seems like the appropriate reaction would be to be more cautious about causing them pain, since we're cautious about causing humans pain. But instead the reaction is to get excited about the prospect of causing them more pain, since they work just like humans but for whatever reason their pain doesn't count morally.

(I should be cautious about attributing this viewpoint to the researchers themselves based on just a few paragraphs of quotes. The unempathetic storyline may well be an effect of the "exciting scientific breakthrough" frame that the author of the story used, in which case it's the writer who's at fault for not thinking about how the content of the story reflects on the form of its presentation.)


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