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No Surprises Here - Pets Found To Be Empathetic

By James Donahue

A report of a new study published in the journal Neuron finds that animals share the same feelings and emotions that humans do, and they can even be empathetic. That means they can mentally put themselves in the body of other animals and their owners and understand emotional reactions to the events going on around them.

While the results of the study by Christian Keysers at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, may come as a surprise to hard-core scientists who once thought the ability to empathize once set humans apart from "lesser" animals, it is something most pet lovers have known all along.

That dog or cat in the home can't make the facial expressions or react as verbally to events as we humans but they can react. The way the ears are raised or lowered, the eyes are squinted, the body is poised, and sometimes fangs shown, are clear signs. And animals do react vocally with certain noises that can be unique to the situation they are in. Certain growls, whines, barks or mews are expressions that have unique meanings.

And if you as a pet-owner have developed your right brain senses enough to mentally communicate with the animal, the signals come through loud and clear when they are emotionally involved in the affairs of the house.

But if the thought processes of animals are not as complex as those of humans, how can they be empathetic, the skeptic might ask.

Keysers' team used an MRI scanner to monitor volunteers in various situations of being personally touched, or watching other people being touched, and discovered that the brain activity linked to empathy occurred in a sensory area of the brain called the secondary somatosensory cortex.

This suggests that empathy is not an abstract action of the brain at all, and that it is an experience that can be shared by animals as well.

While most animals may not have as large a brain as humans, that does not seem to prove a diminished mental capacity. Certain parrots, for example, have small bird-sized brains but they are mentally capable of mimicking the human voice, learning hundreds of words, and speaking in intelligent and complete sentences. Apes that have been taught sign language also can communicate at the level of a young human child.

Some creatures of the sea, for example the whale and the porpoise, have larger brains than humans. Studies have revealed that these creatures many also possess more advanced mental skills than humans.

Thus the boast that humans are more intelligent than the animals of the planet may not be justified. What we possess over the animals is the ability to communicate in more advanced ways, built monuments, and even destroy ourselves and all the the living things that share the world with us.

That may make us unique, but certainly not superior to the other living things on this Earth.