Photo by Becky Phillips, WSU

By Becca Bayham

Did you know that rats can laugh?

All you have to do is tickle them. Oh, and get a supersonic noise detector so that you can hear their happy chirps. [Click here for video]

“It’s one of the most remarkable phenomena I’ve seen in my life,” renowned researcher Jaak Panksepp said during a lecture at Duke, March 15. Panksepp spoke as part of Brain Awareness Week, a series of events dedicated to increasing public awareness about brain research.

Panksepp is well-known for his work in the field of affective neuroscience, or the study of the neural mechanisms that underlie emotion. He argues that important inferences about human emotions can be made from studying emotion in animals. However, this idea has met resistance in the neuroscience community.

“Most scientists are skeptical that animal feelings can ever be studied,” Panksepp said. At this, he gestured toward the audience.

“Well, I will never know what any of you feel, nor will you ever know what I feel,” he said. “But do we close discussion on this important topic, or do we try to work past it?”

Panksepp considers the idea worth investigating, and he has conducted many experiments to test the relationship between human and animal emotions. For example, he found that rats exposed to cat hair exhibited signs of fear, even when they’d never seen a cat before.

“I think you can identify a category of human feelings that correspond with animal feelings. There are going to be differences – there have to be … [But] if we understand their basic feelings, we will begin to understand our own.”