Do animals feel empathy?
In the Scientific American Mind Matters series, Dr. Frans B.M. de Waal, Emory University, describes some recent work that suggests that mice, indeed, are capable of empathy, and that it has a very real purpose - to modulate the social effect of pain. He concludes:
While it doesn't prove that the mice feel vicarious emotions, it demonstrates they experience a vicarious intensification of their own experience.
This demonstration justifies speaking of "empathy" -- at least for some. Here we find an interesting division between psychologists, who tend to think top-down, and biologists, who tend to think bottom-up. The top-down view considers the most advanced forms of empathy, such as putting yourself into another's "shoes" and imagining her situation, and wonders how this ability arises; the inevitable answer is advanced cognition, perhaps even language. Yet merely imagining someone else's situation is not empathy. Such imagination can be a cold affair, not unlike understanding how airplanes fly. Empathy requires emotional involvement.
Here the bottom-up view offers a better perspective. When we react to seeing someone display emotion and construct an advanced understanding of the other's situation, this process indeed involves -- in humans and some other large-brained animals -- a great deal of cognition. But the emotional connection comes first; understanding and imagination follow. This mouse experiment suggests that the emotional component of this process is at least as old as the mammals and runs deep within us.
No feeling? No thought.