Petting a dog has a curiously therapeutic effect on the brain, study finds


It’s well known that dogs are deeply beneficial to our mental health and provide emotional support. But our pets might also help our brains in other surprising ways, according to new research.

Scientists have analyzed the impact of petting a dog on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, revealing findings that could one day improve animal-assisted therapy treatments for humans. The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Here is the background – The brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in processing emotions and regulating tasks related to executive functioning, such as attention, working memory, and problem solving. The researchers wanted to know how this part of the brain would react to interaction with a dog, which is among the most common pets in animal-assisted therapies.

“We decided to start this study because little is known about the brain’s reaction to interaction with animals,” explains Rahel Marti. Reverse. Marti is the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel.

Marti’s research team analyzed how the frontal cortices of 21 volunteers activated in response to contact with a dog or stuffed animal compared to a neutral activity like staring at an empty wall. The researchers measured their brain activity using a method known as near-infrared spectroscopy, which is a non-invasive way to calculate oxygen saturation in the brain. It also has advantages over other brain imaging methods such as fMRI because participants can sit in a normal room and feel more comfortable.

A participant pets a dog while a spectroscopy device monitors brain activity.Marti et al., CC-BY 4.0

In sessions involving the stuffed animal, the researchers placed the stuffed creature on the participant’s thigh so they could see it, and they were then able to pet the toy. Similarly, the dog lay down on the couch, touched the participant, and in a later session, the participant was allowed to pet the animal.

What they found – The research yielded two key findings that provide startling insight into a dog’s impact on the human brain.

First: Brain activity in the prefrontal cortex increased when participants had closer contact with the stuffed animal or live dog.

“Our result confirms previous studies linking closer contact with animals or control stimuli to increased brain activation,” says Marti.

But the second finding was even more compelling: Study participants experienced higher brain activity when petting the dog compared to interacting with the stuffed animal. This is consistent with previous studies in horses and cats, but is the first to document increased human brain activity when interacting with dogs.

“What’s new here is that we looked at different interactions: looking, feeling and stroking,” adds Marti.

Why it happened – While brain activity decreased between the participants’ first and second interaction with the stuffed animal, the opposite happened with the dog, a finding that surprised the scientists. While we can’t say for sure why brain activity increased over time while petting the dog, the researchers have a hunch.

“Our explanation is that the participant has established a bond with the dog,” says Marti.

This link likely gave participants an emotional investment in the animal, leading to greater attentiveness – indicated by higher activity in the prefrontal cortex – when petting the dog compared to the stuffed animal. Previous research shows that animals can improve attention in humans, likely by increasing their emotional engagement – ​​for example, a human is more likely to think about a dog’s feelings when petting it.

“We believe emotional involvement may be a central underlying mechanism of brain activation in human-animal interactions,” says Marti.

Why is it important – The article suggests that petting a dog can engage our emotions and attention in ways that non-living stimuli — like stuffed animals — cannot.

It’s possible that dogs can help patients who have difficulty staying attentive in social situations, especially people who show higher levels of emotional engagement and brain activity when interacting with puppies. Therapy dogs are already used in medical settings for pain management and other purposes.

“Our findings could be relevant for the therapy of patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and social-emotional functioning,” says Marti, adding that “such activities could increase the chances of learning and achieving goals. therapies”.

And after – Further research will need to confirm and build on Marti’s research before therapy dogs can help people with attention deficits. Future research could focus on whether all participants benefit from increased emotional engagement and attention when petting puppies, or if this finding only applies to humans who already love puppies. dogs.

“This study is just a first step,” says Marti.


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