Neural correlates for perception of companion animal photographs

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Abstract

Anthrozoological neuroscience, which we propose as the use of neuroscience techniques to study human-animal interaction, may help to elucidate mechanisms underlying the associated psychological, physiological, and other purported health effects. This preliminary study investigates the neural response to animal photographs in pet owners and non-pet owners, and both attraction and attachment to companion animals as modulators of human perception of companion animal photographs. Thirty male participants, 15 “Pet Owners” (PO) and 15 “Non-Pet Owners” (NPO), viewed photographs of companion animals during functional MRI (fMRI) scans at 3 T and provided ratings of attraction to the animal species represented in the photographs. Fourteen subjects additionally submitted and viewed personal pet photographs during fMRI scans, and completed the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale (LAPS). PO exhibited greater activation than NPO during the viewing of animal photographs in areas of the insula, and frontal and occipital cortices. Moreover, ratings of attraction to animals correlated positively with neural activation in the cingulate gyrus, precentral gyrus, inferior parietal lobule, and superior temporal gyrus during the viewing of representative photographs. For subjects with household pets, scores on the LAPS correlated positively with neural activation during the viewing of owned pet photographs in the precuneus, cuneus, and superior parietal lobule. Our preliminary findings suggest that human perception of companion animals involve the visual attention network, which may be modulated at the neural level by subjective experiences of attraction or attachment to animals. Our understanding of human-animal interactions through anthrozoological neuroscience may better direct therapeutic applications, such as animal-assisted therapy.

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