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Empathy’s Possible Source and Observations

Posted on 20 February 2013 by Jerry

Researchers continue the exploration of the von Economo neuron and its connection to higher states of self awareness and consciousness.  At one time these neurons were thought to be exclusive to the part of the brain where empathy and self awareness reside in large brained animals; people, great apes, Asian elephants, whales and bottlenose dolphins.  These animals have shown self awareness in the mirror and mark tests.

Von Economo neurons have recently been found in macaques, a type of Old World monkey, and zebras.  This result coincides with the third incident seen recently where a giraffe mother refuses to leave the body of her dead calf.  Another giraffe mother spent more than two hours splaying her legs and licking her recently born but dead calf.  Of interest is the isolation of these mothers at these times for they are normally with other females rather than by themselves.  

This type of demonstration, known as nurturance care-giving behavior, is very similar to that seen in self aware animals such as chimpanzees and elephants.  It raises the question of whether zebras have an understanding of the circumstance of death.  Further supporting their uniqueness, other recent research shows that when von Economo neurons die off, in a rare form of dementia, people can no longer relate to others.

Beyond bottlenose dolphins, common long-beaked dolphins have recently been observed in a group showing great empathy as they try to help a dying member of their pod.  The research contains dramatic photos of a dolphin designated as EC08001, being assisted by five of its companions who attempted to support its body so it could breath and not sink in death to the bottom of the ocean. 

The research contains a photo with an explanation stating “Five long-beaked common dolphins are supporting EC08001 by assuming a raft-like formation with their bodies.  One animal, positioned in the center of the formation, rolled over on it back (belly up).”  In another picture, “A long-beaked companion dolphin tips the head of EC08001 upwards to help it breathe.”  A final picture is of “The carcass of EC08001 is floating vertically and exhibiting rigor mortis.  The helper dolphins continue to try to stimulate the dolphin by nudging its head and body.”

These instances of common long-beaked dolphins and zebras should add to the human realization that more of their fellow animals often are capable of the depth of understanding and emotion to which human beings are subject.  This serves as a sober lesson for us who have seen the film “The Cove” which documents the routine killing of dolphins by Japanese fishermen in a small cove located near their home town.  We begin to understand the full fear, pain and sadness experienced by our fellow creatures.

Use the following links for more information:


http://www.cell.com/neuron/ (search for “Von Economo Neurons in the Anterior Insula of the Macque” and select Summary)





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