Wolf_empathy_web

Wolf empathy

Wolves have a bad reputation; what other creature automatically carries the prefix “big, bad” in our consciousness? In our fables, wolves harass small, scarlet-hooded girls and their grandmothers and demolish the homes of inoffensive, if architecturally challenged, pigs. In the Middle Ages wolves were reviled because they could spread rabies and, even today, it is universally acknowledged that you don’t want one at your door. All of this seems a little unfair when you consider that wolves are just like any other carnivorous predator, but you don’t see them depicted wearing crowns and saving hidden lands from dark forces. The injustice of it all is heightened by a new study which suggests that wolves may even be capable of feeling empathy.

Contagious yawning has been well proven to be linked to empathy in humans. For instance, in one study researchers covertly watched 40 psychology students and 40 engineering students yawning contagiously. The students thought they were sitting in a waiting room before an experiment but, in reality, their reactions were being observed while someone else in the room yawned 10 times. On average, the engineering students yawned 1.5 times in response, while the psychology students yawned 5.5 times. This suggests that yawning is dependent on degrees of empathy, not just based on the assumption that psychology students would be more empathetic than engineers. Tests showed that psychologists had a more developed “theory of mind” than the engineers. That is, they had a greater ability to appreciate the mental state of others.

Other research has shown that contagious yawning is associated with the same parts of the brain that deal with empathy. These regions, the precuneus and posterior temporal gyrus, are located in the back of the brain.

Studies documenting contagious yawning among dogs when exposed to human yawns have been explained on the basis that domestication has evolved the capacity for empathy that contagious yawning signifies. However, these researchers postulated that empathy may have a wider biological basis in other creatures as well as humans and so wanted to see if perhaps wolves may yawn contagiously as well.

To test this, they studied a single pack of 12 wolves in a Japanese zoo. Over the course of five months they recorded all yawning behaviour, the time of the yawn, the identity of the initial yawner and the identity and position of the subsequent yawners in relation to the initial yawner. They found that the strength of a wolf\’s pack relationship with a yawning wolf directly predicted whether they would yawn as well. Additionally, female wolves, who have a stronger social awareness than male wolves, yawned more quickly in response than did the males.

It seems highly likely then that wolves do in fact have the capacity for empathy. So, should you find yourself alone in a snow-filled wood facing a snarling a pack, failing relying on some spectacular sprinting to outdistance them, you might just have to try to connect with them and perhaps they will see things from your point of view. Maybe we should call them the “big, bad, caring wolf” after all?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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