(Who said science was useless … ?)
From “Captivated by Critters: Humans Are Wired to Respond to Animals” (ScienceDaily, Sep. 9, 2011), we learn:
… 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.
Working with 41 epilepsy patients who were already monitored for stress, they found.
“Our study shows that neurons in the human amygdala respond preferentially to pictures of animals, meaning that we saw the most amount of activity in cells when the patients looked at cats or snakes versus buildings or people,” says Florian Mormann, lead author on the paper and a former postdoctoral scholar in the Division of Biology at Caltech. “This preference extends to cute as well as ugly or dangerous animals and appears to be independent of the emotional contents of the pictures. Remarkably, we find this response behavior only in the right and not in the left amygdala.”
Mormann says 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,” he says.
Hmmm. The researchers are likely onto something, but a better explanation for their find is surely needed. “Unexpected and biologically relevant stimuli” could include fire, flood, and nearby lightning strikes – none are life forms, but all are “biologically relevant” if the biology in question is one’s own. The same could be said for long lost friends or strangers who appear suddenly from nowhere, and offer no word of greeting.
We know that animals are sentient. And variously endowed with intelligence, but not rational. That may be the significance of having a separate brain path for reacting to them. Their behaviour is sensed as neither automatic nor the product of rational choice – rather, a middle ground that suggests different responses.
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