Prof. rats out rodents’ empathy on PBS show

Between eating chocolate and saving a fellow rat, the furry rodents chose the latter.

By Sam Zacher

U of C neurobiology professor Peggy Mason and her team of researchers published their research that found that rats are capable of empathy, thus giving insight on how humans themselves interact last December. Wednesday night she shared her findings to a larger audience when she made a cameo on the PBS television show, NOVA ScienceNOW.

Mason’s research has already received significant attention from mainstream media and the scientific world, with her work featured in The New York Times and Scientific America, but she wanted to publicize the research further through the show so that it could be accessible to everyone.

“I wanted to work with PBS on this because I think science should be for everyone, for the American people who pay for it. It’s a strong value for me that the public understand [scientific research] and have it available to them,” said Mason.

Her experiment was conducted with two rats: One was trapped inside a Plexiglas restrainer with a door that could only be opened from the outside, and a second was placed on the other side of the door. After repeated trials lasting an hour per day for six days, Mason found that, on average, the free rat would open the door to release the trapped one. According to Mason, the only reward for the free rat was the internal feeling associated with freeing the other one.

To prove that this action is done because a fellow rat is in a less-than-ideal situation, Mason and her team made the free rat choose between the rodents’ favorite snack of chocolate and opening the door. The rat still proceeded to release his buddy.

Even when the rats were not able to play with each other once the door was opened, the results didn’t change, indicating that they rescue their fellow rats not for their own benefit, but because they are capable of empathizing with the other.

This phenomenon isn’t contained in the laboratory setting. Since publishing her research, Mason has also received e-mails from people sharing their personal anecdotes on compassionate, empathetic acts of squirrels, birds, and even tortoises.

“These are wonderful stories, and they really point out one of the powers of the work we do,” Mason said. “We take the study of the kind of behavior from anecdotal to experimental and can find out more about how this kind of behavior comes about.”

“It’s directed at the question, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’” Mason said about the intention of the study. And as for the implications of her work, Mason hopes it can have a positive influence on society. “The better we’re able to understand other people’s distress, the better society will be.”