Pain is infectious. According to Emily Underwood of Science Magazine, a recent study has revealed that mice can feel pain when another mouse is in pain. She references the study done by Andrey Ryabinin of Oregon health and science university. The study showed that 68% of mice shows signs of sensitivity to pain when a nearby mouse was in pain. Ryabinin eliminated many factors in order to control the experiment, making sure that variables were limited.
This study made me think of my dog. It seems like he can always tell when I am down or upset. Although he is typically very energetic and playful, he brings it down when he sees that I am not happy. I wondered if the interaction with these mice was similar to the interaction with my dog. Apparently, my anecdotal observation may have evidence.
Dr. Deborah Custance developed a study in which the interaction between human and dogs was observed. 18 dogs with their owners were put in a controlled setting (the owners living room so that the dog wouldn’t feel stress). The owners were directed to perform different states. The owner was to cry for a period of time and hum for a period of time. The interaction with a stranger was also observed when the stranger was either crying or laughing. An observer would measure how the dog reacted to the emotional state.
Custance’s hypothesis that dogs would react to the crying more than the humming proved to be valid. 15 of the 18 dogs were noticeably more responsive to the owner when the owner was crying. Some dogs were even more reactive when the owner was crying, barking and whimpering in response. Clearly, these results could not be due to reverse causation and it does not seem likely that it is due to a third variable.
This study brings up the interesting point of a human’s bond with their pet. Although the similarities to the mice experiment may be weak because of the vast difference in the way that mice act from humans and dogs, it still indicates that pain may be an almost infectious emotion.
This is much easier to explain with humans because empathy can be formed through verbal communication. A human’s capability of reasoning is far better than any other species. However, certain emotions, such as pain or happiness may be able to cross species.
Charles Choi of LiveScience.com reported that the name of the neurons that cause this empathetic reaction are called mirror neurons. They cause a being to feel the desire to mimic another being’s actions. Choi referenced scientists who theorized that only certain people have active mirror neurons (they refer to the condition as synesthesia).
This makes an interesting case for how we act the way we act. Empathy may be something that is genetically a part of you. Finding out the traits that form your personality, such as discovering your aptitude for empathy, help people understand what makes us act the way we act.