Maybe misery doesn’t love company. When physical pain is involved, having an equally suffering friend nearby just makes you feel worse, said a study published online in the journal Current Biology.

The study wasn’t aimed at figuring out whether we get by with a little help from our friends, but whether we catch emotions from them. It found that the stress induced by a social encounter with a stranger can block emotional contagion that otherwise is rampant between acquaintances. Even mice displayed more pain-related behavior when they suffered beside equally miserable acquaintances, the study suggests.

“The contagion of the pain of one is adding to the pain of the other, making it bigger than it otherwise would be,” said neuroscientist Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal, lead researcher. “In both species, this only works if they know each other.”

Mogil is convinced that the increase in pain ratings is a manifestation of empathy, at least in its simplest form.


Naps promote babies’ learning

Babies are champion learners. Born with just a few basic reflexes, they quickly teach themselves to navigate their world by observing, remembering and making sense of their surroundings, the language spoken around them and the nature of such elusive notions as time, space and permanence.

Babies are also champion nappers, snoozing away the majority of each day in brief interludes of peaceful slumber. It turns out those two facts about babies are probably related. When it comes to learning, those naps are at least as purposeful as they are peaceful.

A study suggests that, for babies, napping plays a key role in the formation of declarative memories — the process of learning from firsthand experience what things are and do, how they work, and how they relate to one another and to the self.

While few of us have explicit memories of infancy, it is a period when the young human is committing to long-term storage a trove of facts that can later be retrieved at will. That “declarative memory” will become the basis for a lifetime of further learning.

Without timely naps, much of what babies learn about the world around them might be forgotten, research suggests. If frequent daily naps did not follow intensive learning sessions in the first years of life, our path to walking, talking and purposeful exploration would probably take longer. It might not happen at all. The research was conducted by the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and the University of Sheffield in Britain.

News services