Hands up for oxytocin – one of our most basic human needs...
Walking home in the pouring rain this morning, I was struck once again by our dog’s delight on a walk. She appears to live entirely in the present, accepting and embracing what comes next, her bed, her walks, and her playtime. Yet she is a dog, in her mind not given to human principles and emotions. As her owners perhaps projecting our humanness, we attempt to rationalise her behaviour as per our own but dog or not; I believe there is learning for us in her dog world of living in the moment. She greats every moment with total joy - walk in the rain, YES! Long walk up - let's go! Affection, hers is limitless.
News flash: humanising the dog as if she were a best friend or baby is expected. Why not? The bond is woven from the same stuff that merges mothers and infants.
The organisers of the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions scientists presented their latest findings confirming that friendly human-dog interaction releases oxytocin in both human and dog. If hormones could win popularity contests, oxytocin might well be queen of the day. Given oxytocin's connection to such life-affirming activities as maternal behaviour, lactation, selective social bonding and sexual pleasure, researchers have been working overtime to uncover its role in the brain and in regulating behaviour.
Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus. It is either released into the blood via the pituitary gland or other parts of the brain and spinal cord. It binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behaviour and physiology.
In one experiment, researchers found that women and their dogs experienced similar increases in oxytocin levels after ten minutes of friendly contact. Also, the women's oxytocin response was significantly correlated to the bond they reported in a survey taken before interacting with their pets.*
This rang a bell in my mind recalling a news article on BBC exploring how researchers in Japan have developed a robot in the shape of a seal that they say can provide physical and emotional support to the sick and elderly. Japan's robotic technology is among the most advanced in the world.
The therapeutic robot, named Paro, makes a seal-like noise and moves its head and tail. It is fitted with artificial intelligence software and tactile sensors to respond to touch and sound. It can show surprise, happiness, and anger, learn its name, and react to words that its owner frequently uses. A study** has found that interacting with a therapeutic robot companion made people with mid-to late-stage dementia less anxious and positively influenced their quality of life. Does petting Paro make people feel better in the same way that petting a dog does?
And whilst recognising the sadness of someone's loneliness being assuaged by petting an electronic animal (having seen the response in my husband’s grandmother when my mother in law took her dog into the nursing home for her to cuddle, in her dementia induced haze, the most base human response of love and affection flickered in her response to the dog), in the reality of today’s short-changed world at least some gadgets can evoke this oxytocin response.
Shakespeare or Da Vinci (or perhaps even Cicero further back in time, tell us that “the eyes are the window to your soul.” They didn't say that those eyes had to be human!
* These findings come from the lab of Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, an M.D. and Ph.D. at Uppsala University in Sweden. Dr Uvnas-Moberg is also a pioneer in the study of oxytocin and its social bonding and anti-stress effects. Dr Uvnas-Moberg's findings that high oxytocin levels, naturally occurring during breastfeeding, were linked to a mother's increased sense of calm and desire to make a social connection.
Prof Cook, Professor of Nursing at Northumbria University