Who can pass the window of a pet store without pausing to look at the puppies or parakeets? Researchers at Caltech have found that our brains have individual cells that “fire” specifically when we see an animal — a dog, a spider, a mouse — but not a person, place or object.
Christof Koch and other researchers discovered the cells while studying the brains of 41 neurosurgical patients who were about to have surgery for severe epilepsy, as reported in Nature Neuroscience. Electrodes were placed deep in the patients’ brains to find the source of their seizures. Researchers took note about how various parts of the brain responded to seeing certain images. They found that only the amygdala — an almond-shaped region of the brain associated with emotions including fear — had cells that responded when seeing images of animals:
That makes sense, Koch says because the amygdala “seems to be specialized in alerting us to things that are emotionally important to us — either positive or because they’re scary.”
And animals are both, he says. Some want to eat us. Others could be our dinner. And, of course, some we just want to cuddle.
“We found in one patient a cell that I call the “Peter Rabbit cell” because it responded to three very cute images,” says Koch. “One was a rabbit, one was a white snow hare and the third one was a cute little mouse.”
Koch speculates that this particular neural response to seeing animals ”may reflect the importance that animals held throughout our evolutionary past.” As he says in NPR:
One reason present-day humans have these cells may be because some animals posed a threat to our ancestors, Koch says. Specialized cells could have helped the brain respond quickly to danger, he says.
Koch says he was reminded of how important a quick response can be during a recent run along a mountainous trail in Los Angeles.
“As I was about to step down I saw there was a rattlesnake,” he says. “By the time I realized it, by the time I felt fear, you say, oh my god there’s a snake, I had already automatically extended my legs, my stride was larger so I didn’t step on the snake.”
Behavioral studies have found that people respond with more attention when seeing an animal or person than something stationary, like a building. After all, chairs, bridges and books just stay as they are, while animals (and, indeed, humans) can go from friendly to hostile and vice versa in a matter of moments. University of California at Davis anthropologist Lynne Isbell points out that animals have been around far longer than buildings. As she says, “if we didn’t pay attention to them then, you know, that might not have been such a good idea.”
Our brains have simply evolved to take notice of animals first: Perhaps this is why so many of us feel ourselves inexorably drawn to animals, from those pups in the window to pictures and even stories about animals. Sometime way back in our very distant past, we learned that, when it comes to creatures four-footed and crawling on the ground, we’d best take notice and this habit remains deeply embedded in us today.
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