What is the biological process behind the feeling of empathy? - study

The study, led by TAU's Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal, studied the process inside a rat's brain during situations of distress.

 Tel Aviv University's research team, headed by Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal. (photo credit: Courtesy of Tel Aviv University)
Tel Aviv University's research team, headed by Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

A new Tel Aviv University (TAU) study found empathy in mammals is rooted in their sense of identity and belonging to a group.

The study, led by TAU's Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley's Prof. Daniela Kaufer and published in eLife, studied the process inside a rat's brain during situations of distress.

The researchers found that rats, just like humans, are split into various groups and only express empathy to members of their group but do not help rats from other groups.

A rat, when in the presence of a trapped friend from its group, will engage with the brain's reward system when trying to assist the other to escape.

However, when the trapped rat is from another, unfamiliar breed, the rats do not help it and the brain's reward system does not activate.

The researchers used phosphoric markings to mark neurons in the rats' brains that were active when the rats were in the presence of the trapped rats. Upon seeing a trapped rat, a system in the brain, similar to a system seen in humans when they feel empathy, was activated.

 Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal of the School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience at the Tel Aviv University. (credit: Courtesy of Tel Aviv University) Dr. Inbal Ben Ami Bartal of the School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience at the Tel Aviv University. (credit: Courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

"This research shows that the reward system has an important function in helping behavior and if we want to increase the likelihood of pro-social behavior, we must reinforce a sense of belonging more than a sense of empathy," said Dr. Ben Ami Bartal.