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Why We’re So Drawn to Animals: It’s In Our Brains

Why We’re So Drawn to Animals: It’s In Our Brains

 

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 ó 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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134 comments

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3:08PM PST on Feb 19, 2013

There's a thing to be said for unconditional love!

2:13PM PST on Feb 18, 2013

Well, I think it's a whole lot simpler. God created the universe, including animals. His final creation was humankind whom he told to take good care of and responsibility for it all. How neat that something we've been given responsibility for can bring such great pleasure. (And look at all the trouble that occurs when we don't).

2:36AM PST on Jan 26, 2013

We're born to be close, so please respect them

1:45PM PST on Dec 18, 2012

Thank you for sharing.

7:57PM PDT on Apr 27, 2012

Thank heavens for that cell that "fires" when we see the animals. It is telling us that if we want true love and pure acceptance of us as we are, we need to own an animal.

11:37AM PDT on Apr 27, 2012

I wonder if damage or malformation to the amygdala could explain animal abuse?

5:02PM PST on Jan 26, 2012

Animals have a beating heart likes ours and just because they can't talk to express their feelings doesn't mean people can hurt them like it's some kind of object. I think people that really care and stand up for animal rights are Real humans. It's sad to say that the more I know about people, the better I like my dogs.

7:53AM PST on Nov 23, 2011

animals and man were created by God on the 6th day. God made the animals to be companions, so the bond was made by God and placed in the minds and hearts of each man and animal. Sin came and corrupted that bond. When Jesus returns , He will make it as it was first created to be. Peaceful, loving, and no death.Even so Return Lord Jesus.

11:28PM PST on Nov 22, 2011

~I've always had dogs as pets growing up and I have always had a dog or two from the time I left home~I've had cats but I am a dog lover through and through!!~

8:57PM PDT on Sep 13, 2011

I like animals more then I do most other humans. Its hard to pass up buying a puppy or a kitten in a pet store cause they are so cute...But in most cases they came from puppy/kitten mills and I don't support that. One day I wish to open a pet store that works with haven human and other animal rescues in adopting animals....so animals would still be in a pet store but not sold but adopted.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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