Your brain is hardwired to notice animals

Why we notice animals, in contrast to people, landmarks or objects.

Regardless of whether you have room for them in your heart, animals still occupy a special place in your brain – the right side of your amygdala.

Essentially, our brains are hardwired to notice animals, according to a study published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience on August 28, 2011. Study scientists reported that neurons in the right side of the amygdala responded faster and with greater magnitude to images of animals than to those of people, landmarks or objects.

The amygdala has been associated with various emotions, both positive and negative, and is linked to the processing of fear responses. But it isn’t just scary animals that get the amygdala fired up. Neuronal responses were as strong for cute and furry animals as they were for beasts with fangs and claws.

Kitties or crocodiles, it’s all the same to your amygdala. Image Credit: Stephen Heron (L) and Kevin Walsh (R).

The study was conducted on 41 patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. Prior to surgery, mapping of the brain was required – a method that scrutinizes, in this case on the level of neurons, the location where various stimuli are processed. This allowed the team to record individual neurons (1,445 of them!) in three portions of the brain – the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the entorhinal cortex.

To the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, animals were no more exciting than objects (or landmarks or people). Amygdalae, however, became significantly more active when subjects were presented with pictures of animals. Further neuronal prodding revealed that this activity was coming largely from the right amygdala.

This baby llama was the most photographed thing at Machu Picchu the day I visited.

This isn’t the first indication that our brains might be particularly good at processing animal images. The authors note that their results are consistent with previous research, which found that subjects performed better at change-blindness tasks* when the altered visuals involved animals.

Why should our brains contain neurons that specialize in animal detection? Possibly due to benefits to our distant ancestors from being able to execute this task correctly. Stimuli that are encountered frequently enough and for long enough (such as human faces) can find their way into the brain’s hardwiring. Animals were an important part of our evolutionary history. Long before they became companions and curiosities, animals were already providing our ancestors with calorie-rich sustenance or compelling reasons to run for their lives. Being able to spot animals, and spot them as fast as possible, was more useful than being able to pick out a rock in the distance. And now? Well, if nothing else, this specialization might make it easier to find pet dogs who bolt out of the house without their leash.

* These are experiments in which subjects are presented with changes in images, which they often fail to detect. But, like I said, it’s easier when the changes feature animals.

Bottom line: Our brains are hardwired to notice animals, according to a study published online in Nature Neuroscience on August 28, 2011. Scientists reported that neurons in the right side of the amygdala responded more quickly to images of animals than to those of people, landmarks or objects.

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