I was just rereading Neuroethics, Ch. 6 (“Animal Neuroethics and the Problem of Other Minds”), and I was interested in the part about animals’ reactions to distress and pain, and how they differ from humans. This section, in particular, jumped out at me: “(Animals) may not express distress in nonverbal ways that are analogous to ours … (ex.) they may not vocalize at all, and may freeze rather than struggle when afraid” (pg. 342). My issue with that, is that that’s how some humans might react as well, depending both on their personality and on the environment in which they grew up. To me, the really interesting question is: is “pain” the same to an animal as it is to a human? Moreover, is “pain” the same to one human as it is to another human?
On a related note, the book did talk a little bit about empathy(/“mirror neurons”). They talked about the brain/behavior sequence of “You stub your toe à you feel pain à you say “ouch”/your ACC activates”; “Joe stubs his toe à he feels pain à he says “ouch”/his ACC activates”. They did make a brief connection to empathy (“Joe stubs his toe à you see it à you say “ouch”/your ACC activates”). So they covered human-to-human empathy – but what about animal-to-human empathy? My mom told me a story about how recently, she injured herself, and was in visible distress for most of the day. The family dog (despite being old, deaf, and typically indifferent) actually seemed to realize that my mom was in pain – she apparently kept following my mom around, nuzzling her, trying to lick the injured area, etc. I found this article that suggests that we actually bred dogs for empathy. So, I do believe that there can be animal-to-human empathy, even if it is not as cognitively complex as human-to-human empathy.