In 2015 Americans will spend $60.59 billion on their pets, estimates the American Pet Products Association. As this illustrates, for many people pets are like family.
Biologist E.O. Wilson believes this affinity reflects an instinctive love human beings have for other living creatures, a hypothesis he named “biophilia.” Supporters of Wilson’s theory point toward several categories of evidence that illustrate how humans exhibit an instinctive bond with other living things.
The Healing Power of Plants
The Chicago Tribune recently reported how Allendale, Illinois, teacher Nanci Lunsford is using a greenhouse to help children with emotional and behavioral challenges. Students gain a sense of accomplishment by tending flower and vegetable gardens, transplanting, landscaping and selling the fruits of their labor.
Lunsford’s project illustrates an approach called “horticultural therapy” which is used to help all age groups. A team of researchers led by Mark Detweiler summarized the evidence for the value of horticultural therapy in an article for Psychiatry Investigation, highlighting applications such as reducing pain perception, alleviating stress, calming agitation, lowering reliance on medication, and decreasing incidence of falls. Detweiler’s team cited previous research that demonstrated how indoor gardening helped some dementia patients with sleep disturbance improve their sleeping patterns and waking behavior.
NPR science writer Kristofor Husted reported examples of horticultural therapy being used to help a variety of beneficiaries, including troubled youth, the elderly, veterans, and prisoners. So when you’re looking to give friends and loved ones plants or send them flowers, you might be doing them a double favor by improving their health as well as brightening their day.
Interspecies Altruism and The Biophilia Hypothesis
BBC journalist Bethan Bell recently reviewed the opinions of scientists and anthropologists who have sought to explain why human beings instinctively find baby animals cute. Pioneering ethologist Konrad Lorenz observed that human babies and animals share certain facial characteristics, such as large eyes, a snub nose, a bulging forehead and a retreating chin. Anthropologist Andrew Marlow relates this to how human bipedalism imposes limitations on the size of a baby’s head in relation to the mother’s pelvis, causing us to naturally associate an animal face bearing similar characteristics with the vulnerability characteristic of human babies.
But the bond between humans and animals may go even deeper than this line of explanation suggests. Biologists Susan Lingle and Tobias Riede published research in The American Naturalist documenting that deer mothers respond not only to the cries of their own babies but also those of humans, as well as other mammals. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp suggests that the emotions associated with certain acoustical patterns may be common to certain animals and humans.
Are dogs or cats better for your emotional health? Boston.com writer Rachel Raczka posed this question while pondering a recent viral video from SoulPancake showing how kittens can reduce stress. Raczka confessed that the scientific jury is still out on the question, but fans of both species can claim support for their case, illustrating another line of evidence for the bond between humans and animals.
Cats have helped reduce depression and anger in Alzheimer’s patients and increase the attention span of children with ADHD and autism patients, says Purina. Meanwhile WebMD writer Kathleen Doheny says owning a dog can reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and stress while helping you get the sleep and exercise you need.