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.

Own image

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…


Oxytocin and Social Bonding

While most of us would be able to describe what being affectively close to someone feels like, we might find it harder to explain why and how such a connection forms.

Why do we love and what makes us love certain people? Why is love so different depending on the subject of our affection? Is it possible to measure love? What does the complete absence of love in an individual reveal about their health state? With so many questions having been formulated throughout centuries, no wonder love has become a universal conundrum. Traversing various disciplines, it not only represents the realm of the literary, but it has increasingly become one of the central focuses in philosophy, biology, social sciences and neuroscience.

As far as the neuroscientific approaches to love go, this concept is represented by affiliative bonds. Therefore, from now on we shall refer to love as such. For the sake of the reader’s personal interest, we shall further discuss affiliative interactions as they appear and manifest in humans. Affiliation describes the ability of an individual to form close interpersonal bonds with other individuals of the same species. Three prototypes of affiliation have been identified: parental (between children and their parents), pair (between romantic partners) and filial (between friends).

This article is intended to introduce the reader to the evolutionary significance and neurochemical mechanisms underlying social bonding/affiliation. As such, the above-mentioned types of affiliative behaviours will be only in part separately discussed. Instead, we shall focus on what these categories share in common, particularly, the hormone-neurotransmitter oxytocin and the concept of synchrony.

Synchrony refers to the process by which the members of a social group collaborate with each other, in order to achieve a social goal. This kind of collaboration involves concordance in time between members, at the level of behaviour and physiological processes (e.g. hormonal release, neural firing). Through these synchronous processes underlying social reciprocity, each member is introduced to the social milieu, becomes adapted to his/her environment and learns how to survive.

Intimate reciprocal relationships between two individuals in a social group help shape the individual’s moral, empathic and pro-social orientation, as well as social adaptation and self-regulation. The interaction between mother and infant is critical to the social maturation and well-being of the young. Human mothers, just like other mammals, exhibit specific postpartum behaviours, such as affectionate touch, high-pitched vocalisations, expressing positive affect, which lead to the notoriously strong mother-infant bond.

This type of specific attachment relationship coordinates the physiology of the infant with the behaviours of the mother. Moreover, this mother-infant synchrony enables the temporal alignment of the infant’s inner state with the responses of the social environment (via the mother). The absence of a proper interaction between mother and child, especially within the critical period (between 3 and 9 months after birth), has been shown to contribute to the development of autism spectrum disorders (for more information on autism, check out this previous article – Decoding autism).

Romantic attachment is another type of social bonding in humans, with significant implications to the normal psychological functioning of the individual. According to recent studies, both parental and romantic relationships share similar behavioural characteristics (gaze, touch, affects, vocalisations and coordination of these behaviours between the members of the pair) and rely on similar neuroendocrine mechanisms. These mechanisms mainly involve a nine amino-acid neuropeptide known as oxytocin.

Oxytocin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is associated with a variety of functions including the initiation of uterine contractions during parturition, homeostatic, appetitive and reward processes, and last but certainly not least, the formation of affiliative bonds. For the latter, oxytocin plays a very important role in social recognition, maternal behaviour and development of partner preferences.

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, by the magnocellular neurones clustered in two types of nuclei: the supraoptic and paraventricular. These neurones send projections to the posterior pituitary gland, thus engaging the oxytocin system with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, mediating the stress response, as well as parturition, lactation and milk ejection. Other projections from the paraventricular nucleus go to various forebrain limbic structures (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus), brainstem (e.g. ventral tegmental area) and spinal cord. There are also other areas, apart from the brain and spinal cord, which receive oxytocin signalling, such as the heart, gastrointestinal tract, uterus, placenta, testes etc. With such extensive projections, it comes as no surprise that oxytocin is involved in a wide variety of processes.

In romantic and parental attachment, oxytocin induces the motivation to initiate sexual behaviour, the formation of sexual preferences and the increased stimulant value of the infant for its mother, via its connectivity with the mesolimbic dopaminergic neurones. The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a major role in the reward-motivated behaviour. Therefore, the oxytocin-dopamine interaction is key to the motivation to bond between members of romantic or child-parent relationships.

If you were wondering why the parental attachment has so far been presented only from the perspective of the mother-child relationship, that is because in males a different hormone mediates parental behaviour. Vasopressin can be seen as the male equivalent of oxytocin, as it modulates affiliation, aggression, juvenile recognition, partner preference and parental behaviour in males. Having said that, there are studies which show that oxytocin also supports paternal behaviour and is linked to the father-typical affiliative behaviour.

Oxytocin is also very important in establishing close connection with our best friends (what is known as filial attachment). According to research in this area, children start showing selective attachment to a ‘best friend’ around the age of 3. This kind of interpersonal interaction represents the first attachment to non-kin members of society, therefore, a crucial step in the normal development of any human being.

Depending on the level of synchronous parenting children experienced during infancy, their interactions with best friends can vary in the degree of reciprocity, emotional involvement and concern for the friend’s needs. These behaviours are modulated by oxytocin. During the first 3 years of life, oxytocin secretion in humans depends on the parent’s postpartum behaviour (which is predicted by the parents’ own levels of oxytocin) and, in turn, determines the degree of empathy between close friends. Therefore, a reasonable assumption, which has been recently proven, is that children benefiting from high parental reciprocity during infancy develop better social adaptation, are more friendly and cooperative, and show greater empathy.

All in all, the social bonds we form with members of our social group, be they our family, romantic partners or friends, are dependent on certain hormones and behaviours occurring at critical stages of development. Close attachment bonds with our parents, during early infancy, are later translated into affiliations to non-kin members of the social groups, who we come across during childhood, evolving into intimate friendships during adolescence, which eventually shape the ability of the adult human to form and maintain romantic connections and provide nurture for the next generation.

What we have just discussed is of importance for different aspects. Focusing on oxytocin and synchrony provides better understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. At the same time, this focus offers some answers to questions regarding the reasons and mechanisms underlying the many types of love us humans experience throughout our lives.


Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3),  380-391. 

Hammock, E. A. ., & Young, L. J. (2006) Oxytocin, vasopressin and pair bonding: implications for autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2187–2198. 


As I was thinking about the way I should structure this article, a question kept running through my head: ”If we were to choose, do we want to be cool idiots or anti-social geniuses?” At first, common sense kicked in: “You cannot really put things like this; when it comes to human beings (and living creatures, in general) there are many shades of grey. Therefore, you can be smart and socially able at the same time. People are complex!” But what is intelligence? What really distinguishes intelligence from geniality? Are geniuses narrow-minded and do they excel in only one or two areas? Doesn’t being smart require broaden interests and different abilities, including social skills? Does intelligence involve creativity? So many questions, so many myths, so much confusion… I decided to write an article about intelligence at some point in the near future, but until then, let us focus on today’s topic – Autism!

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a rather peculiar brain disorder with contradictory manifestations. It is one of the reasons for the avalanche of questions above, and it has often left scientists baffled. I am sure most of you are all well aware of the characteristic symptoms an autistic person portrays. If you remember when we talked about empathy and mirror neurones in a previous article, we mentioned autism in the context of a dysregulation in the activity of mirror neurones. As a result, autistic people do not understand and tend to avoid other people, and they might not allow others to touch them. They also develop stereotypical behaviours. Repetition and strict schedules is what people with autism need in order to feel calm and safe. Anything that is out of the ordinary, according to their particular set of rules, can wreak havoc.

Some of you might add that autistic people have severe mental disabilities. I would like to point out a relevant distinction here: patients with Asperger’s syndrome show normal intelligence and often impressive language skills, and are not characterised by the same anti-social behaviours as autistic patients. The latter was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943, whereas Asperger’s syndrome bears the name of its discoverer who, nevertheless, used the same term (autism) in 1944 to describe the disease.

What is amazing about many autistic people is that, despite their so-called “mental retardation” and subaverage IQ (between 30 and 60), they exhibit incredible and unique talents, usually in one or two fields. These fields can rage from art and music to maths and impressive arithmetic skills. Either they are multi-instrumentalists, polyglots, compulsive drawers or writers, or are able to do almost impossible mental calculations, and it comes as no surprise that autistic people were also notorious geniuses (e.g., Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pablo Picasso, Amadeus Mozart, Charles Darwin, John Nash).

On top of this, autistic people can learn a new language or a classical music composition in a matter of days or even instantaneously (as it is the case of multi-instrumentalist Leslie Lemke). And if you are still not impressed, some have an amazing memory, being able to retain every information they read. Kim Peak, the man who inspired the famous film ” Rain Man”, has stored in his memory all the details in the around nine thousand books he has read throughout his life. Nevertheless, he is regarded as retarded and is almost completely dependent on his father.

But what actually happens inside those incredible people’s brains? What makes them work in a way normal people cannot, and yet still, why do they lack what we have? One possible explanation comes down to genes. It appears that a mutation in the fmrp gene causes the loss of the encoded protein, leading to structural brain modifications. The FMRP protein regulates synthesis of proteins in neurones and its absence leads to overly developed brain tissue.

Another theory has to do with brain trauma (such as in the case of epilepsy) at an early age, which can trigger different parts of the brain to be cross-activated. This, in turn, leads to another very interesting phenomenon – synaesthesia. Therefore, autistic individuals associate numbers or different other objects with colours, odours or shapes. This can account for their unbelievable abilities to memorise so much information. Some scientists believe that it is the loss of particular functions in the brain that trigger the genius abilities, more specifically the brain regions that control “higher” cognitive processes are or become inactivated. Ironic as it sounds, the talents of autistic people, which we all aim for, are actually linked to subcortical areas and in a normal individual are usually suppressed by the functions of the cerebral cortex. We can now understand why normal people are “normal” and autistic people are different.

As always, there is much more to tell, but unfortunately limited space requires this article to come to an end. I will come back to this in a future article about the creativity and intelligence. Until then, how about you reflect on the questions at the beginning of this article for a while? Also, I added a link to a very interesting video about an autistic young man who is not only extremely talented but also (surprisingly!) socially able.

For further information:

Antonio Damasio,1995. Decartes’ Error. Vintage Books

Bear et al., 2006. Neuroscience – Exploring the Brain. s.l.:Lippincott Williams & Wilknins pp. 706

Dick Swaab, 2014. We are our brains – From the womb to Alzheimer’s. Penguin Books, pp. 185-194

Video Daniel Tammet (highly recommended) 

Image by Damaris Pop

Empathy and…mirror neurons!

As I am quite sure all of you have watched Titanic at some point in your lives or at least know the story, I’m gonna ask you one simple question? How did you feel when Jack Dawson died at the end of the movie? Did you burst out into tears, did you feel an overwhelming sadness? If the answer is Yes! (and should be, unless you are some socio-paths, heartless people – just kidding, I didn’t cry either!), this article is meant to briefly explain what actually happened in our brain at that time. 

Psychologists would call this empathy. And that’s true. For a few moments you were experiencing what Rose was feeling while she was seeing her lover freezing to death and then drowning. But why did you empathize with a movie character? What do humans empathize at all? It all comes down to neurons. In order to try to understand this complex process that lies behind our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place, we need to figure out the neurological mechanisms that triggers all this. (This could be a good excuse when someone calls you a wet blanket, for example: ‘It’s not me, it’s my mirror-neurons and oxytocine signalling in the anterior cingulate gyrus’, as you’ll see below) 

Some special motor neurons have been discovered in the frontal lobes of monkeys, that apparently signal both when the animal is performing a particular task and when it’s seeing someone else doing the same thing.They were called mirror neurons.  It’s important to bear in mind: “the same thing”, because for another type of action, other mirror neurons would show activity. Thus, these neurons are highly specific. Evidence of mirror neurons have been recorded in humans as well, using neuroimaging, but there isn’t a 100% certainty they actually exist, as it is in macaques and apes. 

Researchers now believe that mirror neurons (if they indeed exist in humans) are also involved in the development of learning (in particular, in language formation); they also appear to account for the evolution of mankind throughout the history (from homo sapiens to homo sapiens sapiens – around 200,000 years ago – and the development of arts, modern tools, religious beliefs – later on, around 40,000 years ago). Moreover, many scientists see dysregulation in mirror neurons’ activity as a possible cause of autism – one of the primary symptoms of this disease being the incapacity of the patient to relate himself to the exterior world, hence the anti-social behaviour. 

There are many other long-known brain structures which trigger emotions and empathy, such as the anterior cingulate gyrus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the neurotransmitter oxytocin…But mirror neurons are a quite novel discovery and may set neuroscientists on track to explain complex processes that happen in our brains. Cool, right? 🙂 

This article is not only about mirror neurons, but also about empathy. I put a link to a short video filmed in India, in which a macaque monkey is being resuscitated by another one, after having been electrocuted. Some say this is a clear sign of empathy in animals (at least in the superior ones; also elephants, dolphins have shown many signs of empathy before). Other say it is a normal altruistic behaviour, present in most animals (from insects to mammals). Ethologists and population geneticists refer to altruism as one of the instincts of putting others in your species first in order to assure species’ survival and evolution and is mostly encountered in animals that have lived in groups. 

What do you think? Do some animals empathise or what we might see as an empathic behaviour is nothing more than pure adaptive instinct?

Monkey video

Interesting article about mirror neurons

Article – Empathy brain differences