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Human-Animal Interactions: A Neural Exercise for Better Health



We all know that spending time with animals can make us feel better, but did you know it also gives our brains a workout? This idea, based on the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, explains how interacting with animals can improve both our mental and physical health by regulating our body's stress and relaxation responses.

The Polyvagal Theory looks at how our body's autonomic nervous system controls stress and calmness. This system, which works without us thinking about it, plays a big role in how we act around others. According to this theory, when we interact with animals, we use a special set of nerve pathways that help us feel safe and calm. This isn't just good for us—it helps the animals too!

One of the key parts of this theory is the vagus nerve, which helps control things like heart rate. Over time, this nerve has evolved in mammals to allow for social behaviors without fear. This means that when we spend time with animals, it helps signal to our bodies that we are safe, promoting health and growth for both humans and animals.

Dr. Porges explains that our body has three main ways it responds to what's happening around us. The oldest way is a "shutdown" response, which can make us freeze up in extremely dangerous situations. The second way is the "fight-or-flight" response, where our body gets ready to either fight off a threat or run away from it. The third and most advanced way, unique to mammals, helps us connect socially through facial expressions and sounds, like tone of voice.

A really interesting part of the Polyvagal Theory is "neuroception," which is how our brain and nervous system detect safety or danger without us even realizing it. This process can be influenced by social cues, such as the soothing purr of a cat or the friendly wag of a dog’s tail. These cues help us feel safe and relaxed.

Think of interacting with animals as exercise for our brain’s stress-relief system. Just like lifting weights makes our muscles stronger, spending quality time with animals strengthens the nerve pathways that help us stay calm and healthy. This can make us better at handling stress and recovering from tough times.

Understanding this theory can make a big difference in practical ways. For example, it can help make veterinary visits less stressful for pets, and it can improve animal-assisted therapy for people. Because these interactions benefit both humans and animals, they create a positive cycle of well-being.

In short, the Polyvagal Theory gives us a new way to see how our interactions with animals benefit our health. By understanding the science behind these connections, we can better appreciate the positive effects they have on our lives. So next time you cuddle your pet, remember that you’re not just enjoying their company—you’re also engaging in a healthy activity that benefits both you and your furry friend. Embrace these moments, knowing they strengthen the special bond we share with the animal world.


References:

Porges, S. (2013). Human-animal interactions: A neural exercise supporting health. In Plenary speech at the annual conference of IAHAIO—The International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations.

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