Dear Dr. Universe: Do you know how human and animal interactions help our mind grow? Does it help us? Does it do nothing? This has fascinated me for a very long time.
– Gabby G., 11, Berlin, VT
Our brains are pretty busy. They are constantly thinking, feeling, and sensing our world. One thing that can help some people relax is spending time with an animal friend. You might play fetch with a dog, sit with a cat, brush a horse, or even watch a goldfish zip around its bowl.
People who spend a lot of time with animals might tell you that something special seems to be going on here. But scientists are looking for evidence and want to find out for certain just what is going on. They want to know more about what happens when animals and humans spend time together.
One scientist who studies human and animal interaction is my friend Phyllis Erdman at Washington State University. After her day at work, she said, the first thing she does is go home and play with her dogs.
Everybody knows that we feel good when we are with animals, Erdman said. But we also need the science to back up the idea. She said one notion scientists test out has to do with different chemicals that are in our brains. Our body makes all kind of chemicals and some can make us feel pretty happy.
When babies and mothers bond, scientists often see the chemical oxytocin (ox-ee-toe-sin) at work in their brains. It turns out that oxytocin may be released when people spend time with animals, too.
The chemical helps us build trust and bond with each other. When it’s released in the brain, it lets you know that something, usually good, is happening. Maybe that thing is spending time with a whole bunch of kittens or puppies. The interaction can be good for the animal, too. We are social. And we like a good ear scratch or belly rub.
Erdman has actually worked with dogs and kids to study their interactions, too. She’s also worked with horses. Just brushing and taking care of the animal helped kids feel like they could let go of stressful things.
A lot of human and animal interaction scientists study behavior. But now many are becoming curious about actual changes in the brain itself. New studies are exploring images of the brain when animals and humans spend time together.
The field of human and animal interaction is growing, Erdman said. Perhaps by the time you get to college, we will have more answers to your question. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be one of the people to help us research big questions about how humans and animals can help each other out.
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