Human Brains and the Animal Bond – the Pet Mommy Phenomenon

Do you refer to yourself as Mommy or Daddy when baby-talking to your beloved pet?  Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed, it’s natural!  Turns out there are parts of your brain telling you to do just that.

A 2014 study by Massachusetts General researchers using fMRI scanners on 14 female volunteers discovered some interesting brain associations between how we feel about our children and how we feel about our pets. There are differences, yes, but there are also some strong overlaps.

“Areas previously reported as important for functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all showed increased activity when participants viewed either their own child or their own dog.” And there’s the overlap, the commonality between human babies and pets.

The difference? “ A region known to be important to bond formation — the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SNi/VTA) — was activated only in response to images of a participant’s own child.” OK, not earth-shattering news, and makes a whole lot of evolutionary sense.

And now for the big surprise (drumroll). “The fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition and other visual processing functions, actually showed greater response to own-dog images than own-child images”.  Whaaaaaat?

Randy Gollub, MD, PhD, says, “Since fMRI is an indirect measure of neural activity and can only correlate brain activity with an individual’s experience, it will be interesting to see if future studies can directly test whether these patterns of brain activity are explained by the specific cognitive and emotional functions involved in human-animal relationships. Further, the similarities and differences in brain activity revealed by functional neuroimaging may help to generate hypotheses that eventually provide an explanation for the complexities underlying human-animal relationships.” This is PhD speak for ‘yes, we know it was small sample size, but the results were awesome and deserve more study.’

The psycho-evolutionary implications for any part of the human brain being better at processing doggie faces than human baby faces are staggering.  I hope more research is underway soon using more people faces, kitty faces, and goatie faces.

The link for the entire study is:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0107205

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Photo courtesy of Imgur

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