A Comforting Thought

It’s only Tuesday and I’m already having a bad week.  It’s got to the point where I’ve had to take up yoga.  Yoga!  But even that, the centering, the focusing, the calm, doesn’t seem to have perked up my tired but ever-racing brain.

Bunny Cuddle. Photo Credit: AlexSo, today’s fink is about melancholia, and specifically, how we remedy it.  I don’t consider myself to be a particularly melancholy person.  I like fixing things and if I’m unhappy, I tend to immediately take steps to fix it.  I realised yesterday that one of the first things I do to ‘fix’ my melancholia is to seek physical comfort – namely, a cuddle.  First point of call is the Crow, obviously (fitting that he should be called that, as I learned today that corvids are one of a few other species that have been observed to show conciliatory, or comforting, behaviour).  Failing that, I head straight for the Masked Bandits.  Now, rats aren’t necessarily cuddly animals.  Most of the time, the Bandits would not be considered cuddly.  They will tolerate cuddles for a short amount of time, but then they’d really prefer to be climbing, digging, or chewing through various valuable objects.

Nevertheless, I still obtain a significant amount of comfort from playing with them, even when they are more engaged in using me as a climbing frame than letting me stroke them.  This might have something to do with oxytocin, a hormone that is released in humans during bonding activities – during and after childbirth, during sex, or even simply when there is a demonstration of mutual trust.  It is also seen to increase in both humans and dogs when they play or interact. Increased levels of oxytocin are correlated with feelings of calmness and reduction of anxiety.

It follows, then, that there is a significant – and growing – body of research on the therapeutic benefits of human animal interactions (often referred to as Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT).  There are a whole range of ways in which these interspecies meetings are thought to benefit humans; the alleviation of isolation or depression is just one.  I wonder if this bonding with animals is more beneficial than an equally sociable activity with humans?  Perhaps it’s just less socially fraught (for the humans, anyway).

Macaca fuscata grooming.  Photo credit: Noneotuho Allo-grooming, the mutual grooming behaviour observed in many social species (notably primates but also birds, ungulates such as horses and rodents, including rats), is thought to have evolved as a mechanism for removing dirt and parasites from the fur, skin or feathers of fellows.  Yet it also has other social functions; in primates, particularly, it is often a reconciliation or bond-strengthening exercise.  The Masked Bandits, who may also be influenced by oxytocin, use an unusual form of ‘forced grooming’ as part of their occasional wrestling matches; one will pin another, then start grooming him very thoroughly, sometimes making him squeak in protest.

I am a true groomer, always playing with hair and inspecting hands; not looking for anything, but just because I like to do it.  The Bandits find this particularly annoying most of the time, but occasionally reciprocate; they are particularly fond inspecting fingernails.  I remember a couple of capuchins in Ecuador who used to pull the hands of (naive) volunteers into their enclosure before swiftly identifying any scabs or loose skin and pulling it off.  Horses, too, will scratch your back (or try to) if you scratch theirs.    Although the intentions behind these moments are difficult to decipher, it’s possible – even likely – that many of these behaviours have shared evolutionary drivers; these types of physical contact can be calming, improve social bonds and (certainly in my case), reduce that ‘is it only Tuesday?’ feeling.

When I am sad I seek comfort from both human and nonhuman sources.  I know that physical contact will help alleviate it.  That’s likely to be the case with other species too.  What about offering comfort to others, though?

I have known a couple of dogs who showed impressive talents for responding to human emotion; one I recall specifically climbing on me and whining when I was having a good weep at a very sad book.  It’s thought that this harks back, again, to the long co-evolution of humans and dogs, which seems to have resulted in dogs being particularly adept at interpreting human expression and emotions.  Does anyone know of other examples of cross-species comforting?  I imagine there are many individual cases of animals that have developed specific interspecies bonds in captivity (such as Koko the Gorilla and her kitten), but I’m more interested in a more general ability.

Comforting behaviour is linked to sympathy, which is in turn linked to empathy, which I have talked a little about before.  Relatively recent research in neuro-science has been looking at mirror-neurons, which are activated when we observe behaviours in others – so, if we see another human performing a behaviour, our brain reacts as if we had ourselves performed it.  There are thought to be similar processes that related to observing expressions of emotions in others.  So, in theory, this could explain why when we see another person – or maybe another animal – expressing sadness, we recognise or even mirror the feeling and respond accordingly.  That being said, though a top-class groomer, I consider myself a pretty poor comforter of others; so perhaps this varies significantly and comfort behaviour is as much learned as neurological.

A bit of a rambling blog tonight, but I have found this interesting to research and for me, it’s a comforting thought that we can find comfort not just with our family, or with our own species, but even with smelly little rodents.  As ever, would like to hear your finks too.

Related Links:

Chimpanzee co-operation linked to ‘social bond’ hormone  /  An Examination of Changes in Oxytocin Levels in Men and Women Before and After Interaction with a Bonded Dog  /  Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy  /  Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans /

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