Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Altruistic rats

A group of neuroscientists at The University of Chicago wanted to discover evidence for pure empathy in non-primate mammals. Cue the ubiquitous white rat. You wonder what will happen when researchers die to discover that God is not a bearded elderly gentlemen but an almighty white rat!

Anyway, one rat was placed in a cage, free to roam, another rat, in the same cage, was placed in a transparent cylinder, confined but with a door at one end. The free white rat was noticeably more distressed when the cylinder was occupied than when it was not. When it was, the free rat patiently learned how to free the confined rat; and, having learnt to do so, almost always went to free the confined rat when put in the cage.

The cunning neuroscientists then placed a second container in the cage, full of chocolate, the rat's favourite food, to distract it. This worked up to a point - the free rat did often liberate the chocolate first but then proceeded to save it to share with the rat to whose liberation it now turned.



This is one of the many engaging examples in Larry Doosey's 'One Mind: How Our Individual Mind is part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters' of those anomalies in the scientific consensus whose cumulative nature does nothing to undermine the practice of science yet may question its current running assumptions. In this case that 'empathy' is always disguised 'selfishness' with a specific, and narrow, evolutionary agenda. No doubt, in response, we could create an account that returns the empathetic rat to a 'selfish narrative' but the convolution of these reminds you of how in the early modern period, people kept piling on 'epicycles' onto Ptolemy's earth centric account of the universe in order not to see that it was heliocentric!

Apparently there is a whole group dedicated to this version of 'scepticism' - the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia - who rather than practice science attempt to modify any article that fails to conform to their narrow perception of its assumptions (materialist ones) in direct contravention of Wikipedia's own editorial principles. (For an account of this see Rupert Sheldrake's blog here: http://www.sheldrake.org/about-rupert-sheldrake/blog/wikipedia-under-threat)

The quest for an abiding certainty is a deeply rooted one and sprouts nefariously in science as it does in religion with predictably unsettling and depressing consequences.

Doosey's book is deliberately targeted at the layperson and designed as a series of overlapping vignettes of story, study and argument to open the mind to the possibility that it has 'non-local' features, that consciousness rather than being an epiphenomena of the brain is, in fact, prior, undoubtedly modulated by brains, but not exclusively dependent on them.

This 'radical thesis' is only so from the perspective of early twenty first century science since it is the accepted perspective of Buddhism and Hinduism (and of esoteric traditions in Abrahamic religions); however, it is nonetheless compelling to see it emerge from a genuine empiricism, rooted in a 'tradition' that slowly came to deny the reality described by those traditions (and to be fair they are traditions that often, more often than not, sacrifice their radical empiricism of spiritual transformation for the comfortable, second hand certainties of dogmatism).

It was Schopenhauer in the West (building on his reading of 'the East') who suggested that the simplest explanation for 'empathy' was that we recognise that we are of 'one nature' - we are simply, in compassion, helping 'ourselves' for we are of 'one mind'. It is lovely to see rats apparently simply doing this, and in so doing witnessing to us to do likewise! 

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