Whether it be the millions of livestock animals sent to the slaughterhouses every year, or the countless species endangered across the world from poaching or habitat loss, it seems too often that non-human life is a merely a commodity -- though a recent study suggests that that is not how our brains see things. In fact, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and UCLA say that the region of the human brain which dictates emotions, both positive and negative, is more responsive to the sight of animals than anyone ever expected -- even more than when seeing a human face.According to a press-release from UCLA, researchers recruited 41 epilepsy patients and monitored activity in their amygdalae, an area located deep within the brain which is believed to regulate emotions, in response to visual stimuli -- photos of people, buildings, and animals, respectively. Since most previous studies into amygdalae focused on reactions to human faces, neuroscientists were surprised to find that they didn't elicit the most profound reaction.
"Our study shows that neurons in the human amygdala respond preferentially to pictures of animals, meaning that we saw the most amount of activity in cells when the patients looked at cats or snakes versus buildings or people," says Florian Mormann of CalTech, and the study's lead author. "This preference extends to cute as well as ugly or dangerous animals and appears to be independent of the emotional contents of the pictures. Remarkably, we find this response behavior only in the right and not in the left amygdala."
Researchers believe that this highly refined, hardwired connection to animals is likely the result many years of evolution. Our earliest ancestors' lived and died by their ability to recognize and respond to animals as either threatening, non-threatening, or a potential prey. More recently in our development, however, the remnants of these instincts may shape why humans seem to regard some animals with affection while others are unduly feared.
"Nobody would have guessed that cells in the amygdala respond more to animals than they do to human faces, and in particular that they respond to all kinds of animals, not just dangerous ones. I think this will stimulate more research and has the potential to help us better understand phobias of animals," says co-author Ralph Adolphs of CalTech.
In terms of conservation, it could be said that the animals which we find most appealing enjoy more popular protection than those whose plights may be more dire simply because we don't find them so cute. This is perhaps why the endangered giant panda has become more emblematic of wildlife conservation than, say, the blobfish, which also faces extinction.
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