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Vicarious Emotions of Fear and Pain in Rodents

Research group Keysers
Publication year 2023
Published in Affective Science
Authors Christian Keysers, V. Gazzola

Affective empathy, the ability to share the emotions of others, is an important contributor to the richness of our emotional experiences. Here, we review evidence that rodents show signs of fear and pain when they witness the fear and pain of others. This emotional contagion creates a vicarious emotion in the witness that mirrors some level of detail of the emotion of the demonstrator, including its valence and the vicinity of threats, and depends on brain regions such as the cingulate, amygdala, and insula that are also at the core of human empathy. Although it remains impossible to directly know how witnessing the distress of others feels for rodents, and whether this feeling is similar to the empathy humans experience, the similarity in neural structures suggests some analogies in emotional experience across rodents and humans. These neural homologies also reveal that feeling distress while others are distressed must serve an evolutionary purpose strong enough to warrant its stability across ~ 100 millions of years. We propose that it does so by allowing observers to set in motion the very emotions that have evolved to prepare them to deal with threats — with the benefit of triggering them socially, by harnessing conspecifics as sentinels, before the witness personally faces that threat. Finally, we discuss evidence that rodents can engage in prosocial behaviors that may be motivated by vicarious distress or reward.

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