Animals are more than we think: Empathy and social intelligence in animals

Our experience with animals has shown us that they are not mindless creatures, functioning solely based on their instincts, as Skinner’s behaviourism suggests. In fact, many animals exert characteristics generally thought to be uniquely human. This idea is important not only because it challenges our efforts to answer the ancient question of what actually makes us humans, but because it could also influence the way we interact with animals.

Several studies, either using behavioural, observational approaches, or looking at bodily chemicals and genes, have so far demonstrated that non-human animals, such as different species of primates, elephants, corvids, mice, dogs, dolphins, octopuses etc. show, to various degrees, traits otherwise believed to only pertain to humans. These traits include self-recognition, tool-making, co-operative behaviour, culture and, last but not least, empathy.

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What is empathy?

Empathy is an innate ability to experience and share the mental state of others.

Kitano et al. (2020).

Scientists are still trying to elucidate which behaviours are truly empathic, as well as the underlying mechanisms of empathy. According to Frans B.M. de Waal, professor of Primate Behaviour and of Psychology at Emory University, USA, empathy can manifest through an emotional (bodily) channel, which includes behaviours such as motor mimicry, synchrony and emotional contagion, as well as through a cognitive channel, in the form of self-other distinction and perspective thinking (when one takes the perspective of somebody else). According to him, mammals definitely show the former type of empathy. When it comes to the latter, which seems more likely to be unique to humans, he demonstrates that, for instance, primates are able to manifest consolation towards a conspecific who has been defeated in a fight, as well as that they possess an understanding of justice.

Manifesting a sense of fairness or justice involves the ability of an individual to recognise and respond to inequitable outcomes between themselves and another individual. Brosnan and de Waal (2013) have observed that capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and dogs react negatively to continued inequity between themselves and a social partner. These animals refused to continue participating in interactions in which the outcome is constantly less good than a partner’s. Moreover, they also exert pro-social behaviours, i.e. they would help their social partner achieve an outcome that they could not otherwise achieve on their own. All these points about empathy are presented more at-length by de Waal himself in a TED talk, which I highly encourage you to watch.

Aside from the above-mentioned ones, another sign of empathy is helping behaviour, or the attempt to help a conspecific get out of a distressed situation. Although it might not come as a surprise that highly intelligent animals, like primates or elephants, demonstrate helping behaviour, rodents do it, too. One of my previous articles mentions a study from 2011, by Bartal et al., in which one free rat occasionally heard distress calls from a second rat trapped in a cage. The first rat then learned to open the cage and freed the other one, even when there was no payoff reunion with it.

This kind of social cognition that allows rats to recognise consecifics and perceive their distress is also seen in another rodent species, the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). Many studies regarding social behaviours and the neuropeptide oxytocin, known for its role in empathic responses and sociality, have been carried out in prairie voles. In a very recent paper, currently available on bioRxiv, Kitano et al. (2020) investigated helping behaviour in prairie voles, in which the receptor for oxytocin has been knocked out (the OXTrKO voles), meaning that it was absent. In an initial experiment, the researchers showed that prairie voles help a conspecific soaked in water by opening a door to a safe area. The soaking in water was used as an aversive situation, which caused distress in the soaked animal. In a following experiment, when the cagemate was not soaked in water, the voles did not open the door as quickly as in the first experiment, which suggested that the distress of the conspecific is necessary for learning door-opening behaviour. In the absence of the oxytocin receptor (knockout), the OXTrKO voles demonstrated less helping behaviour than the wildtypes (which had the receptor), pointing to the role of oxytocin in helping behaviour. It was hypothesised that the helper vole shared the soaked vole’s distress through emotional contagion, which motivated the helper to open the door.  

Lastly, let us turn our attention to an invertebrate animal, whose intelligence and abilities to use tools, solve problems and escape confined spaces are widely recognized – the octopus (Octopus vulgaris). This animal has three-fifths of its neurones in its arms (which it can regrow), but its brain is just as impressive. With around 300 million neurones, octopuses have a brain-to-body-mass ratio similar to that of birds and mammals; their brains support decision-making, observational learning, good spatial memory, and camouflage behaviour. Octopuses, unlike humans, are not social animals, which means that what their learning is not based on parental guidance, co-operation or communication, rather it depends entirely on their own interraction with their surroundings. Moreover, octopuses have some neurochemicals similar to those of humans, such as serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin, which are important for positive emotions. Another interesting fact is that octopuses seems to have personality traits similar to those of humans; octopuses appear to exert temperamental differences, which closely resemble those found in humans, such as extroversion/introversion and neuroticism/emotional stability traits. It is not yet clear whether octopuses have consciousness or are capable of empathic behaviours. Having said that, the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher might suggest just that.

In conclusion, there is clear evidence pointing to the existence of human-like characteristics across animal species, which suggests that we still have a lot to learn from them. Sadly, our relationship with animals is, in many ways, abusive, and we often tend to perceive them as lower-ranking beings, meant to be turned into food, clothes and decoration in our homes, or experimental tools in our labs. I wish we could be more empathetic towards animals, and more intelligent in the way we interact with them. They deserve that and much more…

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