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Spindle Cells

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Is empathy a purely human quality? In this segment, Jad and Robert explore the inner workings of the spindle cell, those long neurons that might connect thoughts to feelings, with the help of Dr. Patrick Hof and Jonah Lehrer. Then they talk to Dr. Clive Wynne again to get a different take on how to connect with an animal.

Comments [20]

Emily from Dedham, MA

I was interested in the connection between spindle cells and autism and found a few studies on it in a Google search. Very interesting!

Apr. 06 2015 09:37 PM

My first thought after the explanation of the function of spindle cells was ..has there been any research at all about connection between spindle cells and autism?q

Apr. 04 2015 02:39 PM
robin d gill from miami florida

Dogs don't have spindle cells but ... re pointing, a rare 100% excellent study -- now the question: with whales you mentioned humpbacks and dolphins, and chimpanzees, so the larger grouping is not enough: re dogs, I have noticed Siberian husky imitating human speech in ways that make me feel something more than mere imitation is involved. QUESTION: Have you checked for spindle-cells in Siberian husky? (And, yes, you guys, do not for a moment allow the crap re animal minds as if we are not animal too!)PS RE ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE, PLEASE TRY MY BK: THE CAT WHO THOUGHT TOO MUCH!

Apr. 04 2015 12:43 PM
Dave K


Appreciation isn't something humans invented, it is a consequence of the evolution of increasingly complex social interactions. To declare unequivocally that another species of extremely social creatures wouldn't also evolve complex social interactions in parallel us is absurd.

The same way evolution created the eye independentl several times into incredibly complex organs, evolution could easily shape the brains of social animals into some common solution. There will most certainly be differences, but flat out denial of any apparent similarity is, frankly, small minded. It reeks of man's ancient need to be superior to the rest of "god's" creatures.

You should have talked to *actual* cetacean researchers. Google "whale brain", it's easy. I looked at "mind of a killer", an article which I recommend. There is a lot of room for follow up here.

Feb. 08 2014 04:22 AM
Aaron Buckley from San Diego

I'm surprised Jad, Robert and Dr. Wynne missed the evolutionary connection of where scientists believe whales came from ... a wolf-like creature.

Aug. 16 2013 01:42 AM
Carl W

Since you have asserted that spindle cells seem to be associated with empathy, is it possible that various levels of autism are affected by spindle cell presence?

Mar. 31 2012 08:32 PM

I agree that if you immediatly come up to a child or most adults and begin scolding them, they might look guilty because they will assume they have done something wrong.

Dec. 15 2010 03:31 AM
Carol Samuelson- Woodson from Seattle

Better dog "test" is maybe: dog has accident or whatever, you come home and dog hides, cringes, acts submissive and you infer dog has had accident. So, test would be, some dogs bad, some not, owners come in and don't know whether dog has been bad or not and owners see what dog does (run up and wag tail or hide, cringe) and interpret--guilt or not. Maybe dogs respond submissively to scolding whether guilty or not; I know children who are abused (and maybe those not abused?) can/would. Always ready to asume guilt if accused, eg. And where is Alex in this discussion??? And, I've known jealousy in a hummingbird though I'm sure few will believe. I think we don't give animals enough credit even still but thank god it's improving. Spiteful wasps? I've read a convincing annecdote about digger wasps from a v. astute observer, Adaline Christopherson in PRAIRIE CHILD. And, since birds sort of had a parallel evolution of IQ etc in certain areas, with a different sort of brain "arrangement" that actually had to be renamed recently, mostly because of Alex, maybe others had that with spindle cells--other ways brain is engineered to feel empathy. Certain emotions, ways of perceiving and behaving seem so basic, so essential to survive and to exist in this world that makes since that very similar ways of reponding (emotions, reasoning, etc) would have to evolve. PS, still listening so maybe Alex or at least birds will be discussed. Hope so.

Sep. 06 2010 02:47 PM
david brickman from albany ny

Just hearing the program for the first time on WAMC as I work in my picture-framing studio.

Regarding the humpback whale, I agree with the scientist that it is inappropriate to attribute gratitude to the animal. However, the behavior described of the whale carefully investigating each diver and the boats seems to represent curiosity, a characteristic that is common among many species (cats most famously) and which would sensibly be selected for by evolution (if you are more curious, you will find more food, etc).

Another thought on the whale is that it was being sure to know its benefactors, in case it ever needed to remember them in the future. Elephants have shown the ability to know and remember helpful or hurtful humans for decades - and whales may be related to elephants. Just some thoughts from a non-scientist.

Great show!

Jul. 16 2010 01:55 PM
colin alcarz from new hampshire

I thought Jad's question about whether or not a dog might actually still feel shame after being scolded despite being innocent of any sin was a valid one too. I was sorry to see it so summarily dismissed. The pbs series "nature" also referenced the dog vs chimp study that demonstrated the superiority of dogs to chimps in recognizing non verbal "pointing" cues in finding the treat. Their explanation was that dogs learn to respond to such cues because as domesticated animals, dogs have learned that their survival (or at least comfort) depends on their ability to respond to "people talk." Chimps don't need us at all so why pay attention to such things. Also wolves originally don't have a vested interested in learning cues but are capable of learning them if made dependent by being raised by people from birth. This podcast gave the impression learning cues was a result of developing a sense of "peopleness" by being raised with people. Not simply as a survival mechanism developed by being raised within a human environment. This is a subtle but important distinction.
Also very interested in the same concern a previous poster had, about whether spindle cells are defective in autistic people. Great podcast!

Apr. 25 2010 05:38 PM
Hope from Tillson, NY

Listening to the story about spindle cells, and how they may be responsible for empathy raised a question, for me especially with the mention that eye contact may facilitate transmission of feelings to understand the emotions of another. Do you know if there has been any research into whether people with autism have spindle cells that are not functioning properly or are absent? If not - I'd love to hear a program about it. Lack of empathy is a significant issue for people with the disorder.

Feb. 05 2010 01:18 PM
Tim from Radiolab

Hi folks -
That song at the end of Spindle Cells is "Danelectro" (I think version 3), by Yo La Tengo, off the Danelectro EP.

Feb. 01 2010 01:11 PM
Cory from Baltimore, MD

Err - April 2nd

Jan. 26 2010 03:45 PM
Cory from Baltimore, MD

Same here! What was the music? Also, was this episode beamed back in time from April 4th or is this a mistake?

Jan. 26 2010 03:44 PM
Matt Roberts from San Francisco

Funny, I have the same question as all these other people but it doesnt look like it's been answered. What was the music?

Jan. 26 2010 02:41 PM
marc Cardwell

i even dug the guitar/stormy tune between the whale story and the spindle story. who did that?

Jan. 19 2010 09:06 AM
marc Cardwell

i'd like the music credits too. loved it.

Jan. 18 2010 02:26 PM
Suzie from Manhattan

I have the same question as J Cator. Please include the music credits, pretty please?

Jan. 14 2010 01:23 PM
Suzie from Manhattan

I have the same question as J Cator. Please include the music credits, pretty please?

Jan. 14 2010 01:23 PM
J. Cator from Cedar Hill, Texas

Very good episode. What is the name of the music that is played right after the 2 segment called Spindle Cells? It was really beautiful.

Jan. 12 2010 09:52 PM

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