When we are in touch with animals we are truly fulfilled
JIM THE shepherd works every day with Skip, his sheepdog. The two of them depend on each other utterly for work, but they are friends too. Although Jim tries not to be sentimental about his dog, he clearly adores him. Meanwhile, Maureen loves her Yorkshire Terrier, Juno. If there's ever so much as a hiccough from the little dog, Maureen rushes her in to see me for a check up. Maureen is open about their closeness: she says that Juno is her best friend. These two animals may seem very different from each other, but they are both typical of the high level of companionship that pets offer to humans.
The value of animals in human lives is expressed in other ways too. Ireland now has two organisations that arrange for pets to visit patients in hospitals and elderly folk in nursing homes. There are riding stables that offer contact with horses as a type of therapy. And psychiatrists sometimes use pets as a way of enabling their patients to relax and to communicate in a clearer way.
Have you ever wondered why people relate so well to pets? There's no simple answer, but my favourite theory is the "Biophilia Hypothesis", which maintains that humans sub-consciously seek a connection with nature – both animals and plants – in order to feel fulfilled.
The basis for this theory is that the brain of our ancient ancestors grew in size from 350cc to 1400cc when humans lived outdoor lives on plains and woodlands. Part of the stimulus for the growth in brain size was exposure to the landscapes and creatures around us. Our ancestors learned about natural settings and animal behaviour; this process of learning happened at the same time as our brains developed.
The result has been that the human brain has evolved with many natural inclinations relating to nature and animals. We modern humans may have an utterly different lifestyle, but we still have the same brains as our ancestors. The result is that we need to be in contact with nature and animals if we are to reach our full human potential.
The Biophilia Hypothesis explains many aspects of human behaviour. It offers a good explanation for the popularity of hobbies such as pet-keeping, gardening, bird-watching, hill-walking and other outdoor activities. It could also explain why we find it so rewarding to gaze out on landscapes, whether from a mountain top or just looking at a photograph or painting.
Recent research has provided more evidence for the strong connection between human brains and animals. Researchers took advantage of a radical situation, where doctors were using neurosurgery to treat human patients for epilepsy.
This technique involves opening the skull, and cutting out seizure-causing parts of the brain; it's a technique reserved for patients with severe, disabling seizures, and it can have a high success rate.
While these patients were undergoing this surgery, the researchers used the opportunity to investigate the detailed functioning of their brains. They inserted tiny electrodes into different parts of the brain, and presented the patients with pictures of a range of different subjects. They then recorded the resulting electrical activity in different areas of the brain's anatomy. The researchers expected that there would be a similar reaction in different parts of the brain, regardless of what type of image were shown to the patients. In fact, the results were unexpectedly dramatic: a tiny, almond-shaped part of the brain called the "amygdala" showed a strong preferential reaction to animals.
Brain cells in the amygdala were aroused more rapidly and powerfully when the patients were shown pictures of animals compared to pictures of people, landmarks and objects. The amygdala is the primitive part of the brain that's involved with emotional learning, providing a rapid instinctive response to threats or opportunities. The amygdale is the bit of the brain that makes you leap in terror when somebody jumps out of you wearing a Halloween mask.
The thinking part of our brain – the cortex – modifies the reaction of the amygdala, which is just as well: otherwise we'd physically attack that person wearing the mask. The research tells us that this instinctive part of our brain is hard-wired to react particularly strongly to the sight of animals.
What does this discovery mean? The authors say, in their jargon-rich language, that it "argues in favour of a domain-specific mechanism for processing this biologically important class of stimuli. A plausible evolutionary explanation is that the phylogenetic importance of animals, which could represent either predators or prey, has resulted in neural adaptations for the dedicated processing of these biologically salient stimuli."
Simply put, humans are geared to react strongly and promptly to the sight of animals. The research provides physical evidence that humans have a special relationship with animals, taking place at a deep emotional level. Many people are unimpressed by this type of research – they would say that the scientists have discovered something that was obvious already.
You just need to meet people like Maureen, with her little dog Juno, to realise that there's a strong connection between many humans and animals. But the fact that a basic human-animal connection can be pinpointed to a specific part of the brain opens the way to other discoveries. The human brain remains an immense mystery, but the more that we understand about it, the more we are likely to be able to help each other to live fulfilled and productive lives.