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Many of the Same Brain Regions Are Activated When Mothers Look at Their Pets or Their Children

It seems that maternal attachment does not discriminate between species

(Photo: BURGER/phanie/Phanie Sarl/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Countless pet mommies and daddies refer to their dogs, cats or iguanas as their babies, and they fawn over their animals with the fervor of proud, protective and loving parents. Now, a new study shows that those expressions of pet devotion aren't just for show. They have a significant neurological basis—one that even compares to the mother-human child bond, reports Virginia Hughes for National Geographic:

Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital scanned the brains of 14 women while they looked passively at photos of their young children, photos of their dogs, and photos of unfamiliar children and dogs.

As it turned out, many areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward processing — such as the amygdala, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsal putamen — were activated when mothers viewed their own children or dogs, but not when they viewed unfamiliar photos.

There were some key differences, however. The region of the brain involved in facial recognition, Hughes writes, lit up with more activity when woman were looking pictures of their dogs than when they were looking at pictures of their kids. This is perhaps because we can use other cues—speech, for example—to identify our kids, meaning we rely less on any single processing center. On the other hand, two brain regions associated with dopamine and oxytocin—so-called feel good and love hormones—came alive when the women looked at their human but not furry offspring. "This could mean that these areas are crucial for forming pair bonds within our own species, but not so relevant for the bonds we form with pets," Hughes writes. 

Despite the differences, however, the study does add legitimacy to the argument that "dogs may not be children, but they’re still our babies," Hughes concludes. 

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