Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Animals In Our Brain: Mickey Mouse, Teddy Bears, and "Cuteness"

A specific part of the human brain is hard-wired to detect animals

There's never a shortage of new studies about nonhuman animals (animals) and human-animal interactions. A recent study is well-worth noting as it bears on a number of very interesting issues concerning how we perceive other animals. 

We now know about "a specific part of your brain that is hardwired to rapidly detect creatures of the nonhuman kind ... researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and UCLA report that neurons throughout the amygdala - a center in the brain known for processing emotional reactions - respond preferentially to images of animals." There are two other notable aspects of this research: (1) the response of cells in the amygdala are independent of the emotional content of the pictures - cute, ugly, and dangerous animals were processed similarly and (2) only cells in the right amygdala were responsive to seeing animals. The response on only the right is called hemispheric asymmetry and according to one of the researchers, "this striking hemispheric asymmetry helps strengthen previous findings supporting the idea that, early on in vertebrate evolution, the right hemisphere became specialized in dealing with unexpected and biologically relevant stimuli, or with changes in the environment. 'In terms of brain evolution, the amygdala is a very old structure, and throughout our biological history, animals-which could represent either predators or prey-were a highly relevant class of stimuli ...'"

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

This study made me think of where different responses to cute, ugly, or dangerous animals might reside in our brain. Renowned and eclectic scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote a fascinating essay called "Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz" in which he looked at why we find certain animals cute (1979, Natural History, 88(5): 30-36). In this paper Gould followed up on Nobel Laureate Lorenz's research showing that "Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins. Small-eyed, long-snouted animals do not elicit the same response." 

Gould also traced the evolution of Mickey Mouse as follows: "As Mickey became increasingly well behaved over the years. his appearance became more youthful. Measurements of three stages in his development revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium--all traits of juvenility." Researchers Robert Hinde and L A. Barden ("The evolution of the teddy bear", Animal Behaviour, 1985, 33, 1371-1373), likewise discovered that during the 20th century teddy bears went from having long legs and a stubby nose to having stubbier noses and higher foreheads, juvenile traits that Lorenz discovered were called "cute." According to merchants, cute bears were increasingly preferred by people so teddy bears evolved because of consumer pressure. 

In addition to research on how animals are perceived, there also are data on how human babies are perceived. Lorenz called the attractive "cuteness" qualities the baby schema (‘‘Kindchenschema'') that included "a set of infantile physical features, such as round face and big eyes, that is perceived as cute and motivates caretaking behavior in the human, with the evolutionary function of enhancing offspring survival." In humans it's known that the "baby schema activates the nucleus accumbens, a key structure of the mesocorticolimbic system mediating reward processing and appetitive motivation, in nulliparous women [women who have not previously given birth] and this is "the neurophysiologic mechanism by which baby schema promotes human caregiving, regardless of kinship."

We  clearly respond to animals in all sorts of ways and these studies open the door for more fascinating studies into where and how we process animals in our big brains and where the neuroanatomical basis for cuteness and other traits lie. How we treat animals is related to how we perceive and label them so perhaps down the road we'll discover differences in how brains process animals when comparing humans who are more or less concerned with the well-being of nonhuman beings. Perhaps there are differences among those people who choose to "rewild their heart" and those who don't.

We really have so much still to learn about the nature of human-animal interactions and that's why this is such an exciting interdisciplinary field of study. Researchers in radically different areas need to talk with one another and share their fascinating findings. 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

more...

Subscribe to Animal Emotions

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.