Do Dolphins Feel Empathy?

These wonderful beings surprise us with each new discovery we make about them. The study of empathy in these mammals is just beginning, but the results are already incredible.
Do dolphins feel empathy?

In popular culture, there are countless stories about dolphins saving shipwrecked people, fishing and coming ashore for human companionship. All of this raises a logical question: do we really mean something to them? Does the fact that these animals save someone who is drowning in the water mean that dolphins feel empathy?

Empathy is a complex mental process that requires high cognitive development – evolutionarily speaking – and a social mind. Dolphins, despite meeting these requirements, have a reputation for not being as friendly as zoos would have us believe. If you are interested in unraveling this question, read on.

empathy and theory of mind

We can define empathy as an individual’s cognitive ability to understand and participate in another’s feelings. Have you ever yawned? Perhaps a friend said to you “Don’t cry, otherwise I’ll cry too”. All of this is empathy: feeling what the other is feeling.

Empathy appears as an adaptive process in social species, as it is one of the most sophisticated mechanisms of coexistence between individuals. Without it, group cohesion is impossible to achieve. In addition, the requirements for empathy also include self-awareness and that it be generalizable to other members of the association.

This projection of self-awareness is known as the theory of mind. A good example would be to put out a specific song for a friend who is going through a difficult time because we remember that it helped us to lift our spirits: we are assuming that the same process that took place in our mind will take place in their mind.

empathy and theory of mind

dolphins and the theory of mind

Dolphins have more than demonstrated their ability to recognize themselves in the mirror, to have a complex social system and highly sophisticated communication. But what about the theory of mind? Do dolphins attribute their mental states to other people?

The answer is yes. In 2010, Uwano and his group of researchers demonstrated this in an experiment in which dolphins, trained to follow a series of commands through gestures, were more likely to respond to the keeper’s direction of gaze than to the gesture itself.

In other words,  the dolphins paid more attention to what they believed their keeper wanted than to the order itself.  Given all this, is it possible to say that dolphins feel empathy? The answer is yes. See below how this fact was proven.

Dolphins empathize and act accordingly

Empathy is a process that has already been demonstrated in the most diverse non-human species, from small rats to elephants, but there is no choice but to study it through indirect observations, that is, based on its consequences. How to show empathy? The answer is very simple: through helping behaviors.

Before carrying out any experiments, several suspicions had been raised that dolphins have empathy. We’ll show you some pretty clear evidence of this:

  • Diving in areas where dolphins exist is relatively dangerous, but not because they can attack: dolphins know that humans do not breathe underwater and try to save divers thinking they are drowning. The sudden change in pressure coming to the surface too quickly can damage the body.
  • Dolphins defend other species of sharks:  These large fish are natural enemies of dolphins, and there are many stories that tell how they defend swimmers from shark attacks or act as bait to keep them away from whale pods.
  • Dolphins help their species:  When a dolphin in the group is too weak or injured, the other group members swim around it to protect it and help it rise to the surface so it can breathe.

Some more data…

On the other hand, in controlled environments and experimental conditions, the following milestones regarding empathy were discovered in these animals:

  • The enormous complexity of their social system is the fertile ground for empathy: dolphins’ big brains and their long childhood create perfect conditions for developing a sense of group cohesion and how to act accordingly.
  • The relationship between mother and child is fundamental for the development of empathy in dolphins: mothers teach their children to behave in the group through their behaviors, but also with their own words, as they communicate with whistles and talk with each other. the others.
  • Their ability to imitate behaviors is part of the development of empathy:  in comparative psychology studies, the baby dolphin has been observed to develop empathy for the other members of the group, imitating the mother’s behaviors.

Dolphins empathize and act accordingly

To conclude, we will quote the famous anthropologist and ecologist Loren Eiseley. He spoke of “ending the long solitude”, a moment when the human species would free itself, after thousands of years, of the feeling of isolation that comes with the belief that we are the only intelligent beings that exist. And you, what do you think?

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