Of Mice and Mental Health

by Marija Strojnik | Nov 01, 2023


In the world of mice, with whom humans share a common ancestor according to one theory of evolution, an interesting experiment was performed over 15 years ago. In the experiment, a mouse is confronted with two paths: one leading directly to chocolate, the other leading to a second mouse whose access to the chocolate can only be facilitated by the first mouse. After some hesitation (that we still refuse to call moral thinking), the first mouse invariably chooses the second door to help the fellow mouse, and they go to eat the chocolate together.

The liberator mouse displays empathy. It also shares its own assured food supply. Subsequently, the mouse acquires an ally, so this decision is also profitable.

I also recall the story of John Jay O’Connor, late husband of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. While living in a care facility due to his progressing Alzheimer’s disease, he develope a relationship with another woman at the facility. Surprisingly, it was reported that his wife was happy with the comfort he had found, an empathetic acknowledgment that patients with Alzheimer’s disease sometimes develop new romantic relationships as their old ones fade from memory. It warms my heart that this couple enjoyed mutual emotional support, alongside a rare level of compassion and understanding from the former justice.

I reference these stories to reflect on some of our current moral compasses; humanity, empathy, and support of mental health. This fall, the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill experienced multiple traumatic events, including the fatal shooting of a faculty advisor in the department of applied physical sciences. With Sigma Xi’s headquarters right down the road in Research Triangle Park, the safety and well-being of our local members became one of our top concerns. That month, Sigma Xi scheduled a special emotional health workshop with our wellness partner, Happy. These recurring support sessions have been offered as a benefit to all members since 2021, when stress and loneliness were skyrocketing for many during the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue our dedication to supporting our members across the country—not just through grants, awards, and career development, but also through investing in their emotional well-being.

As scientists, we know we can learn a great deal from lab mice. However, all too often we only look at scientific data and experimental results. But if we look a little closer, a seemingly empathetic mouse may have something more to teach us (or remind us) about companionship and humanity.

Marija Strojnik, PhD
Sigma Xi President

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