Resources for Recovering Resilience: Human Brains – Pets’ Brains – Why We Love Pets and Why They Love Us

The cover story of the May-June 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind is Why We Love Pets and Why They Love Us: The Science Behind the Bond. A delightful exploration of commonalities among human brains and animal brains, especially dogs’ brains, that illuminates the deep attachment we can experience with our loyal four-legged companions.

There is a neurological basis – specialized brain cells – for our “biophilia,” the tendency to recognize and respond to life over inanimate objects. Anthrozoologists – scientists who study human animal relationships – find that our interactions with animals can be useful models for understanding how issues of identity, support and attachment play out in a relationship. “It’s all about human psychology,” says anthrozoologist Pauleen Bennett of La Trobe University in Australia. “Pets help us fill our need for social connectedness.”

I love the finding of a 2012 study by biologist Linda Handlin of the University of Skovde in Sweden, that owners who deeply bond with their Labrador retrievers have higher levels of oxytocin (the hormone of safety and trust) and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Makes sense to me.

But the really new news is that neurobiologist Attila Andics and his team at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest have discovered that dogs, like humans, have specialized brain regions located in the same region in both species that process sounds of their own species, and the same region lights up in the brain in response to positive vocalizations of the other species. (To conduct this research, the scientists had to train the dogs to sit still for several minutes, without restraint, inside the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanners so their brain activity could be recorded, just like human subjects in a fMRI. That’s really new news, too.) While preliminary, the research does provide a preliminary hint of the existence of a neural basis for why family dogs and attentive owners may react so strongly to their companion’s emotions.

Even if you don’t live with an animal companion at the moment, you can use the power of your imagination to evoke an animal companion to keep you company in hard times. The exercise I posted last week in Creating a Circle of Support in the Post-Traumatic Growth Applied resource for recovering resilience, can be used to create the support of imaginary pets, too. I have a client who has created an imaginary Golden Labrador to accompany him to his chemo treatments, a brilliant use of imagination to feel the love of a pet who can’t come into a clinic, but who can provide support as though it could.

Here’s the exercise again in case you wish to use it to imagine the support of a pet whenever you need to. May it be useful.

Creating a Circle of Support

We may seek refuge among good friends, people we can trust to not judge or disdain us when we become emotionally unglued or our thinking becomes unhinged: people who can simply be with us until we regroup and are ready to face the world again. These are people whose own stability and calm we can borrow until we can regain our own. They may be on our short list of “go-to” people whom we can call at 2 a.m., trusting that we will be held in what the psychologist Carl Rogers calls “unconditional positive regard,” that they will reassure us that we are (or will be) okay, even though our world is crashing around us.

If you don’t have a lot of people in your life at the moment who can offer a refuge, don’t be discouraged. You can create a genuinely effective circle of support in your imagination. This circle can include people you trust and feel supported by, or it may be made up of imaginary people you would like to meet. Your circle may include a spiritual figure like Jesus or the Dalai Lama. It may include your own wiser self. Visualizing ourselves as encircled by real or imaginary friends who “have our back” can greatly enhance our ease and resilience as we face an unknown or frightening situation.

I experienced the power of calling on support in my imagination almost a decade ago, when I chose to have Lasik eye surgery to correct lifelong nearsightedness and astigmatism. The operation was risky, so I went into it with understandable anxiety. I had asked friends to think of me that day, at the time I was actually in surgery, so that I would feel supported and not alone during the procedure. I had to remain conscious during the operation, and focusing my eyes on the light above me so that the laser could track exactly where to reshape the cornea to give me 20/20 vision. While lying on the gurney, as still as I could, I thought of all my friends thinking of me; I took in the love and caring that I knew were being sent my way.

About ten minutes into the operation, quite suddenly, I lost all sense of anxiety. Instead I was flooded with an overpowering sense of love and belonging. There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all. I remained in that state of serenity for the remainder of the surgery (which was completely successful).

Imagined experiences can be nearly as powerful as actual events for creating new brain circuitry. Neuroscientists have discovered that the same neurons fire in our visual cortex when we imagine seeing a banana as when we see one for real. When you use the power of your imagination to repeatedly visualize people supporting you, you are installing a pattern of coping in your neural circuitry that you can use as a refuge in any times of difficulty or challenge.

Exercise

1. Identify a specific situation for which you would like support, such as going to a supervisor to discuss a complaint or a raise, preparing for an audit by the IRS, telling your brother and sister-in-law you won’t be joining them for Thanksgiving this year, or confronting your teenage son about drug paraphernalia stashed in his bedroom closet.

2. Take thirty seconds to identify at least one person you would like to have, in your imagination, by your side in this situation. Someone or several people who have been supportive of you; who have had your back. These people can be people in your life currently, in your past, even in your imagination.

3. Imagine them gathered around you, or behind you, lending you their faith in you, and their strengths in coping. Imagine them fully present, fully supportive. You’re not alone.

4. Practice evoking this sense of refuge again and again in the difficult situation you’re about to face, or in any difficult situation in the future, until it becomes a natural habit of your brain that you can call on any time you need it.

Evoking refuges and resources in the imagination can feel as real to the brain as having them physically present. The possibilities of using imagination to rewire our brains can stretch toward the infinite. The next time you face an unexpected challenge or crisis, notice any increased sense of inner safety as you evoke your circle of support to help you act resiliently.