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Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed
The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation
By Marc Bekoff
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Marc Bekoff
All rights reserved.
What in the World Do My Essays Have to Do with Psychology?
Every now and again I receive personal emails about my essays asking what if anything my day's subject has to do with human psychology. A few people have not so politely asked me to stop writing because they see no relevance whatsoever to their interests. Presumably, these people must assume all Psychology Today readers agree with their views. However, other people write and thank me for making them think more about who other animals are and, consequently, who we are. Yet even positive comments often include the same question — "What in the world do my essays have to do with psychology?"
To me, it's crystal clear that knowing about the incredible lives of nonhuman animals, their emotions and behavior, has everything to do with many aspects of human psychology. One only has to look, for example, at the online comments to my Psychology Today essays. These show clearly how our interactions with other animals reflect and affect human attitudes, beliefs, and desires. Essays that sparked a wealth of revealing comments include "Rampant Wolf Killing Makes Some People Happy" (posted November 1, 2011), "Is Eating Dogs Different from Eating Cows and Pigs?" (page 262), "Going 'Cold Tofu' to End Factory Farming" (page 252), and "Tilly's Willy: In the Name of Science?" (page 225), to name a few.
The more we know about how other animals are sentient beings who experience unbounded joy and deep pain and suffering, and even extreme psychological disorders like PTSD, the more it raises human moral and ethical questions. We should really care about what happens to nonhuman animals, but often we don't, or we don't care enough to change our actions. What is the appropriate response when we learn that over 99 percent of animals used in scientific research are not protected by the Federal Animal Welfare Act, or that billions of sentient animals are mercilessly slaughtered for unneeded meals, or that animals are often still terribly abused in the name of entertainment? Urban animals are mercilessly killed when we freely move into their homes and living rooms. To me, recognizing how our intrusions into the lives of animals has made life very tough on them should foster efforts at coexistence. I have a friend, a red fox, who regularly comes by to say hello to me each morning (see photo below). He hangs out near my office and offers deep inspiration. He is just one of the many fascinating animals with whom I share my home.
What we know, think, feel, and believe about animals forms part of our human psychology. Research clearly shows that our attitudes about and relationships with other animals affect us, for good and ill. Consider, for example, the excellent research of my colleague Hal Herzog, who has written the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat and also writes for Psychology Today online (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us). He's part of the growing field of conservation psychology (http://conservationpsychology.org), which is defined as "the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world." Of course, animals are a major component of the natural world. A summary of research in this field can be found in Susan Clayton and Gene Myers's outstanding book Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Changing our attitudes and beliefs about other animals really is a social movement, and that by definition involves human society and psychology. (For more on this, see books by Nick Cooney and Thomas Ryan in the Bibliography, page 357.)
While my Psychology Today blog is a constant meditation on why all animals matter, here are three primary reasons why learning about the nature and importance of the human-animal bond is so important to us.
Gaining knowledge about our interrelationships with animals is incredibly important for learning not only about who they are as individuals but also for learning about who we are as big-brained, big-footed, overproducing, overconsuming, and invasive mammals. I don't mean this description in a pejorative way. That's really who we are as a species. And as our population soars we will interact with other animals even more, even if we don't want to or realize it's happening.
Whether or not we realize it, and our behavior all too often indicates we don't, animals are a vital part of our daily lives. We are constantly factoring them into decisions about how we choose to live in the world. People all over the world are showing increasing interest in learning how to coexist with other animals — when taking them into our homes as companions, when living in close proximity to them, and when considering how to conserve what little of the precious natural world remains. Recognizing how the well-being of all beings is closely tied together will make it easier for us to choose to coexist. It's a win-win situation. All animals will benefit as we human animals learn more about the common bonds we depend on.
When we realize how influential and deeply meaningful our close and reciprocal connections with other animals are, and when we accept other animals for who they are — as sentient, intelligent, emotional, and moral beings — we will feel compelled to treat them better. We will offer other animals more compassion and empathy in the numerous venues in which we interact (as food and clothing and in research, education, and entertainment). Mounting evidence shows that we (and they) are basically good and well-meaning individuals, and we must harness these positive traits to develop compassionate regulations and laws. These not only affect their well-being but ours. These practical aspects associated with learning more about the nature and strength of human-animal bonds are to some the most urgent reason for developing human-animal study programs.
We simply can't go on intruding into the lives of other animals as if they don't matter. We lose when they lose. For all practical purposes, we can do just about anything we want to other animals. They're merely property in the eyes of the law and enjoy little to no legal standing, which varies from one situation to another. This, in and of itself, tells us lots about human psychology.
[ORIGINALLY POSTED ON NOVEMBER 11, 2011]CHAPTER 2
Animals in Our Brain: Mickey Mouse, Teddy Bears, and "Cuteness"
There's never a shortage of new studies about nonhuman animals and human-animal interactions. A 2011 study is well worth noting as it bears on a number of very interesting issues concerning how we perceive other animals. The study shows that a specific part of the human brain is hardwired to detect animals, regardless of whether they're cute, ugly, or dangerous, and this reminded me of two older studies that examine "cuteness" itself and the physical features we associate with it.
An article about the 2011 California Institute of Technology and UCLA study said researchers found that "a specific part of your brain ... is hardwired to rapidly detect creatures of the nonhuman kind." Most interestingly, "neurons throughout the amygdala — a center in the brain known for processing emotional reactions — respond preferentially to images of animals." That is, given a choice of stimuli, we respond first to animals.
There are two other notable aspects of this research: (1) the response of cells in the amygdala is independent of the emotional content of the pictures — we respond first to all animals, whether they are cute, ugly, or dangerous. And (2) only cells in the right amygdala were responsive to seeing animals, which is called hemispheric asymmetry. According to the article, "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." One researcher said, "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."
This study about how we're hardwired to respond to animals made me think of earlier researchers who found that seeing emotional qualities in certain physical features is also hardwired. 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. 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."
As an example, Gould traced the evolution of Mickey Mouse: "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 likewise discovered that during the twentieth 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 Hinde and Barden spoke with, people increasingly preferred "cute" bears, so teddy bears evolved because of consumer pressure.
This research on how animals are perceived seems directly related to how human babies are perceived. Lorenz called the attractive "cuteness" qualities the "baby schema" (kindchenschema), which includes "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." We clearly respond to animals in all sorts of ways. 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. This is important because how we treat other animals is related to how we perceive and label them. 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 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.
[ORIGINALLY POSTED ON DECEMBER 22, 2011]CHAPTER 3
Conservation Psychology and Animal and Human Well-Being: Scientists Must Pay Attention to the Social Sciences
Our relationships with animals are frustrating, challenging, and paradoxical. They range all over the place. We love animals and harm them in a myriad of ways, and many people wonder not only why we continue to do this but what we can do to treat animals better.
It's rarely a lack of knowledge and concrete data that result in animal abuse and in the unprecedented losses of biodiversity in what is called the "anthropocene," a latter part of the "sixth extinction" — to which we are the major contributors. Massive losses of biodiversity are a form of animal abuse, but few people cash it out this way. Animal abuse and losses in biodiversity are bad for the animals and bad for us.
We know that animals have rich and deep emotional lives and some may be moral beings (see "Wild Justice and Moral Intelligence in Animals," page 195). Abuse is typically due to the inadequate protection of animals as well as to social and cultural factors. Therefore, we must address the important psychological and social/cultural issues that support our poor stewardship of animals (and their habitats). We must learn about the psychological barriers that prevent people from facing and addressing the complex, frustrating, and urgent issues that allow animal abuse to continue in laboratories, classrooms, various forms of entertainment, and in slaughterhouses and the clothing industry. It's here that the social sciences can help us along (the importance of the social sciences in dealing with climate change can serve as a nice model).
A relatively new and rapidly emerging field called conservation psychology (http://conservationpsychology.org) can help us improve our relationships with other animals. Conservation psychology is defined as "the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world.... This applied field uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of conservation." A 2009 book by Susan Clayton and Gene Myers called Conservation Psychology provides an excellent review of the field.
Here are some important questions and areas that need to be addressed:
Why do we ignore animal suffering and what nature is telling us?
What allows us to override innate feelings of biophilia and our love of living systems?
How do people think about and make personal connections to the natural environment?
What can we do to improve the attitudes of children toward animals and conservation? It's clear we need to teach the children well.
What is the relationship between biodiversity and human well-being?
How can we use psychology to save biodiversity?
How can humane education be a precursor to attitude change in conservation behavior?
Denver University's Institute for Human-Animal Connection (www.humananimalconnection.org) is a model program that can help to answer these and other questions. It's also the first program of its kind within a human services academic setting.
Part of recognizing that changing how we treat animals is part of a social movement and doesn't only depend on scientific data is to get scientists to act as concerned citizens. As an excellent opinion piece in New Scientist said, "We need another kind of scientist to save the world." We as citizens must also act as responsible stewards.
People who care about animals and nature do not have to be apologists for their views. They should not be considered "the radicals" or "bad guys" who are trying to impede "human progress." In fact, they could be seen as heroes who are not only fighting for animals but for humanity.
Biodiversity enables human life; it is imperative that all of humanity reconnects with what sustains the ability of our species to persist. In turn, we should hope that as a species we can act as a collective and fight for our own survival. When animals die, we die, too. Animals are needed for our own psychological well-being, and we can learn a lot from them. We are that connected to other beings, and that's why we seek them out when times are tough. Conservation psychology and humane education will surely help figure out the best ways to move forward and to give animals the respect, compassion, and love that they deserve.
[ORIGINALLY POSTED ON AUGUST 12, 2009]CHAPTER 4
Pets Are Good for Us: Where Science and Common Sense Meet
People around the world often remark how being around their pets (now usually referred to as companion animals) makes them feel good. Much recent research supports this. Here are a few tidbits from a July 2010 USA Weekend article, "Why Pets Are Good for Us," about what we know about the positive effect that companion animals such as dogs, cats, and fish have on us. For more, Marty Becker's The Healing Power of Pets and Allen Schoen's Kindred Spirits summarize much research that has laid the groundwork for current work on the nature of the human-animal bond, and Michelle Rivera writes about animals in hospice situations and how they can ease human suffering in her recent book On Dogs and Dying.
To quote the USA Weekend article: "Watch a Lassie movie and spit into a cup. It doesn't sound like it, but this is cutting-edge research. By analyzing saliva, researcher Cheryl Krause-Parello can tell that merely watching a dog in a movie lowers people's stress. In recent years, research has demonstrated the healthful benefits of pets. Now, investigators are trying to figure out why pets are good for us. Krause-Parello, assistant professor and director of the Center for Nursing Research at Kean University in Union, NJ, learned that people feel better after watching a Lassie flick because their levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, take a free fall."
Excerpted from Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed by Marc Bekoff. Copyright © 2013 Marc Bekoff. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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