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Empathy: For the Fishes?

Empathy is has a loooooong history. Where does it come from? Researchers continue to shed new light on this fascinating, crucially important trait, and we are learning more each day from research in other living creatures.

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Animals, for example. are sometimes seen as simple creatures with basic instincts, but recent research has shown that many animals exhibit empathy towards their own kind and even towards other species. Of course, not all animals are as empathetic as others. Cats, for example, are notoriously aloof. They'll give you a cold stare if you're upset, but they're not likely to comfort you.

In one study, rats showed a willingness to free trapped companions, even when they had to work to do so. "Rats free trapped mates, suggesting that empathy is not unique to humans," says Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a researcher at the University of Chicago.

Similarly, elephants have been observed helping injured or distressed members of their herd, and mourning their dead.

Another study found that dogs yawn contagiously when they see a person they know yawning, indicating that they may be capable of feeling empathy towards humans. "Dogs are really the best models for understanding the nature of empathy in nonhuman species," says James Anderson, a comparative psychologist at the University of Stirling.

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