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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.

kids friends empathy

Empathy on Land

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.

Empathy in the Sea

It's not just mammals that display empathy. Octopuses have shown a remarkable ability to recognize individual faces, and researchers have suggested that this could indicate social intelligence and potentially empathy.

Fish may have the ability to sense and respond to the fear of their peers, according to a recent study published in the journal Science. The research explored the presence of “emotional contagion” among zebrafish, in which fear spreads among members of a group, and identified oxytocin as a key hormone for driving the phenomenon. In experiments, the scientists removed genes related to oxytocin production and detection in some zebrafish, who then did not respond to the fear of their peers, and only did so when the hormone was injected into their bodies.

These findings suggest that empathy could have evolved over 450 million years ago, around the time that fish and mammals diverged on the evolutionary tree.

Is it Universal?

Fish join humans, elephants, and dolphins as known species with the capacity for empathy. Even insects like bees have been observed showing signs of empathy, with one study showing that bees were more likely to free trapped companions that had been dosed with a substance that mimics the effects of alcohol.

Overall, the research on empathy suggests that many, many living beings are hard-wired to express empathy. As Ben-Ami Bartal notes, "Empathy is a very ancient capacity that may be widespread across many different species." And if rats and bees can show empathy, perhaps we should all strive to be a little more like them.

Enhance Empathy on Give River

By engaging with others in a respectful and understanding manner, you can cultivate empathy and build meaningful connections. Taking the time to listen, understand, and respond in a compassionate way can help strengthen empathy skills, and you can do that on Give River by sharing positive and uplifting stories and experiences. Join us, to contribute to a culture of kindness and inspire others to do the same.


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