Therapy dogs are a tool being used to help people with a variety of conditions, but why is it that some quality time with a heckin’ good boy is enough to make some of us feel better? Neuroscience research has uncovered one possible explanation as it found that petting a dog activates an area of our brain associated with socializing in a way that stroking a stuffed toy cannot.
The prefrontal cortex sits at the front of our brain and plays a central role in complex thinking, decision-making, and emotional regulation. Strong emotions and a diverse range of social interactions have been found to get it up and running, and now it seems we can add petting a dog to that list.
The findings come from researchers led by Rahel Marti at the University of Basel in Switzerland who found that seeing and touching dogs not only activates the prefrontal cortex but keeps it active even if the dog leaves. Spending time with dogs was found to have a positive impact on participants’ brain activity in this region, leading to increasingly higher levels of activity.
The study used infrared neuroimaging technology to review the brains of 19 men and women when they saw a dog, chilled with it leaning against them, and petted the animal. The approach was non-invasive – no doubt a necessary requirement considering the enjoyment of a good pooch is probably hampered by having anything drilled into your brain.
The imaging showed that the prefrontal cortex was reliably and increasingly activated by time spent with dogs. While it’s difficult to know the exact translation of this result, it could be of particular significance owing to the role this region of the brain plays in regulating and processing social and emotional interactions.
Curiously, the benefits were not seen to the same extent when participants petted a stuffed toy, indicating that canines are crucial to the effect.
“The present study demonstrates that prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal, but especially in contact with the dog the activation is stronger,” said the study authors in a statement. “This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli.”
Beyond proving what some already knew to be true (dogs are good), the study could have significant implications for animal-assisted therapies which can be very effective for some people. While a doggo a day won’t exactly keep the doctor away, it could help people to enjoy a better quality of life with the aid of humans’ best friend.
The study was published in PLOS ONE.