August 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
It’s easy to forget that people actually read your blog when Statbrain says that less than ten people visit your page each day – WHICH IS A LIE! Sometimes eleven people visit.
Anyway, once in a while I will get a message from a friend or relative checking in or responding to something that I wrote on my blog. Usually I keep those replies to myself but one of my friends sent me a reply so awesome that I had to post it. But first, let me summarize the reasons on why it is so awesome.
- It proves that he reads my blog
- It shows how intelligent he is
- I thought I had more but I guess that’s it…an intelligent person reads my blog!
On a more serious note, I was touched that he actually cared enough to fashion such a thorough response. If I had more time (or the will) I would contest a few of the points but knowing him, this chain would never end. Therefore, I yield to his superior citations (his fourteen versus my zero), and give credit where it is due. To Drew!
Here begins his reply:
My Pulchritudinous Darling—
I’ve been thinking about what you wrote in your latest blog post. As I understand it, you posted the following:
Q: “Why is it so peaceful to be around pets / animals?”
A: “We human beings unconditionally love animals, and not other humans.”
… which seems to be an odd answer, at least to me.
When I first read it, I had a knee-jerk reaction against it. Recognizing, however, that I was being only semi-rational at the time, I wrote you a prefatory e-mail and decided to munch the mulch for a while, maybe read some relevant literature.
As an alternate hypothesis, I would offer:
A: Animals offer stimulatory [viz. sensory] escape from (societal, interpersonal, etc.) stressors.
My evidence is as follows:
I) Lots of scientific literature shows that biomarker correlates of stress (salivary cortisol concentrations, blood pressure, heart rate) decrease with increased attention to / focus on sensory stimulation.,
Neuroscience studies have shown that meditation is similar: EEG’s show the brain switching gears, from ‘active’ patterns to ‘resting’-type patterns. Similarly, blood flow shunts away from ‘higher order’ cerebration centers towards sensory receptive centers, presumably as lower-order autonomic systems take over with concomitant reductions in breathing rate, heart rate, etc.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (A.B. 1960, Ph.D. 1965, University of Chicago) wrote an excellent book about the psychology of increased attention on other things (sensations / tasks). He describes the sensation of complete immersion – ‘flowing’ – as an optimal psychological state with measurable benefits:
“… being completely involved. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”
II) English / Rhetoric students also close-read, habitually. When you describe interacting with your cats, you tend to focus on sensory details [emphasis mine]:
– silky, smooth coat
– gentle purr
– the calming sight
– seeing their tiny little faces
It appears, at least from your account, that a lot of the feelings you describe are closely tied to the tactile, audible, and visual inputs – that is, sensations – rather than relational interactions in the abstract, such as unconditional love. (My assumption is that “to love” counts as an abstract, high-order interaction.)
III) Mechanism consistent with other de-stressors
How do non-pet owners de-stress?
Some run, some listen to music, some go for massages or meditate or do yoga. It’s hard to argue that the act of loving unconditionally is responsible for de-stressing for these individuals, because these individuals don’t love the trail or the massage, at least not in the relationship sense of “love.” They don’t actively extend themselves to advance the well-being of the trail / massage.
Tautologically speaking, a stressor is defined as something that induces stress. (Bear with me while I play the part of Captain Obvious.) Things like work responsibilities, girlfriend drama, financial worries, leaking faucets, dirty laundry, needing to pick up Aunt Matilda at the airport in half an hour– these are all things that increase ‘stress.’
Interestingly, the absolute fact of the stressor has much less to do with stress levels than an individual’s awareness of the stressor. Repeated or sustained reminders of the stressor cause stress to skyrocket in physiologically measurable ways: salivary cortisol increases, blood pressure rises, and fatigue appears., 
N.B. “Stressing out” is colloquially synonymous with thinking about a stressor over and over again.
Thinking about something else (distraction by a movie, sex, video games, Victorian novels), on the other hand, negates the effect; replacement with positive stimuli (a warm bath, for example) decreases the relevant markers of stress., 
I am proposing that focusing on petting your cats is a similar phenomenon.
Just like running and meditating and getting a massage, petting a cat de-stresses because it draws your focus away from your high-order stressors onto a pleasant sensation (soft fur, peaceful room, smoking hot masseuse).
V) I may or may not have a strong opinion about the claim that ‘humans unconditionally love pets but not other humans,’ but that would be a non-data-driven discussion, which I generally avoid.
Ok! Just thought I’d share my take on it with you! Hope you’re having a fantastic Monday.
Avoid Yersinia pestis,
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 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1991.
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