Pets Can Simulate Our Brains Just Like Our Own Children Can

“It’s funny how dogs and cats know the inside of folks better than other folks do, isn’t it?” —Eleanor Porter

In A Nutshell

Many have wondered whether we can form close relationships with our pets that mirror relationships formed with human children. A look at the brain activity of women who looked at both pictures of their dogs and pictures of their human children (compared to scans done while they looked at pictures of unrelated dogs and children) suggest that both our furry children and our human ones trigger extraordinarily similar responses in the brain, especially in centers dedicated to emotion and emotional behavior, reward, and the most basic elements of our personalities.

The Whole Bushel

Ask a woman with only a human child, and she’ll likely respond that there’s no one else that matters as much to her as that child. Ask a woman with only a canine or feline “child,” and she’ll likely respond that there’s no one else that matters as much to her as that child. The debate on whether we can have a relationship with our pets that’s as close as a relationship with human offspring is heated, but now science has weighed in on the subject.

It turns out that as far as our brains are concerned, we can.

With more and more people choosing not to have children, pets—especially the more high-maintenance dogs—are often the center of a family unit. Schedules revolve around their meals and their walks, toys are purchased for birthdays and holidays, and sometimes, we just can’t go out because the puppy isn’t feeling good. While that might all mirror some of the experiences that happen with a human child, there are always those who argue that it’s just not the same.

A team from Massachusetts General Hospital wanted to see just what was going on in the brains of people when they were looking at their human children and their pets. They did a brain scan while subjects were shown different sets of photos: photos of their own children, their own dogs, and then the dogs and children of others.

The patterns of brain activity were striking, and regardless of whether they were looking at photos of their dogs or of their human children, the same centers started firing.

That included the dorsal putamen, which is mostly associated with a particular part of a person’s decision-making processes: the part that’s influenced by emotion. It’s also the part of the brain that processes action-reward stimuli and helps govern our motor skills relating to reward.

There’s also consistent activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is thought to have something to do with some of the most fundamental parts of our personalities. It’s been associated with our sense of responsibility, controlling what drives us and what’s most important to us, and governing the basis of our moods.

The amygdala is also triggered by pets and children, and that’s the part that’s associated with combining emotions with behavior and determining our motivations for our actions.

It’s not all that straightforward, though. There were some differences in how different parts of the brain were activated when the two different subjects were looked at. When people were looking at pictures of their dogs, there was higher activity in the fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain that’s been linked with our ability to process and recognize faces. Part of the reason for that spike is likely our reliance on looking at our dogs’ facial expressions and body language to communicate, while communication with human children is based more in our language skills.

On the flip side, there were a few midbrain regions that were more active when it came to looking at pictures of human children, suggesting that a one-on-one affiliation is more likely to be triggered with a human child than a canine one.

Regardless, the study’s a fascinating look at the medical science behind just why people form such close bonds with their canine (and possibly feline) companions, suggesting that our brains process our relationships with them much more like they’re children than we might consciously think.

Show Me The Proof

Neuroscience Online: Amygdala
Cerebral Cortex: The Mysterious Orbitofrontal Cortex
Journal of Neuroscience: The Role of the Dorsal Striatum in Reward and Decision-Making
National Geographic: The Dog Mom’s Brain
PLOS ONE: Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

  • Hillyard

    Makes sense to me. We’ve always considered our dogs to be four legged, furry family members, in fact we often refer to Gypsy as ‘the kid’.

    • Joseph

      I don’t understand how people can consider a dog or cat as family members. I’ve eaten dog meat before. They’re not even the same species.