EMPATHIC RAT: In a new study, rats surprised scientists with altruistic behaviors by busting their friends out of jail and sharing a snack of chocolate chips.Image: AlexK100, Wikimedia Commons
The English language is not especially kind to rats. We say we "smell a rat" when something doesn't feel right, refer to stressful competition as the "rat race," and scorn traitors who "rat on" friends. But rats don't deserve their bad rap. According to a new study in the December 9 issue ofScience, rats are surprisingly selfless, consistently breaking friends out of cages—even if freeing their buddies means having to share coveted chocolate. It seems thatempathy and self-sacrifice have a greater evolutionary legacy than anyone expected.
In 2007 neuroscientist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago wrote about theneurobiology of empathy for Scientific American. Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a new PhD student in integrative neuroscience who worked across the street from Mason in a different lab, saw the article and proposed a collaboration. "Scientific American really brought us together," Mason says.