It’s been long said that dogs are man’s best friend, helping us tackle stress and depression, and that couldn’t be more true. Now, a new study in Switzerland suggests that petting dogs can in fact be good for our brains. Researchers found that interacting with dogs can activate the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain usually associated with emotional and social processing.
Researchers used a non-invasive and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNRIS) device to measure activity in the prefrontal cortex of 19 study participants, placing electrodes in their foreheads. Larger brain activity was observed during dog petting, which suggests the participants were more attentive and emotionally engaged during the interaction.
“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,” the researchers wrote. “This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal.”
Dogs and brain activity
The device used for the study is essentially a portable brain scanner. It provides flexibility as it’s functional in a natural setting and not limited to a closed room in a laboratory. The device measures brain activity through oxygen saturation of the blood in the brain. The researchers fitted all 19 volunteer participants with the scanner.
The participants, none of which suffered from dog phobias or allergies, had to observe and interact with three live dogs: a Golden Retriever, a Goldendoodle, and a Jack Russel terrier. First, they just watched the dog across the room. Then, the dog sat near the dogs. Finally, each person was allowed to pet the dog. This process occurred twice more at later dates.
But it didn’t end there. The participants also did the same sequence but with a plush stuffed lion that contained a hot water bottle to simulate the body temperature of a live dog. Results showed that brain activity increased significantly through the progressive phases of the experiment, both with the dog and the plushie, and even after the dog left.
However, the human brain reacted differently to a real dog when compared to a stuffed toy. Activity in the prefrontal cortex was significantly higher while interacting with the actual dog instead of the plush, especially when petting it. The difference between the two became more significant as participants came back for more sessions.
“We think emotional involvement might be a central underlying mechanism of brain activation in human-animal interactions,” study lead author Rahel Marti, a doctoral student in the division of clinical psychology and animal-assisted interventions at the University of Basel in Switzerland, told CNN. “The results mirror findings in other animals.”
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.