Snuggling with a stuffed animal provides feelings of safety and joy, but when compared to a live animal, it doesn’t come close. A new study is proving that petting a real dog has more significant impacts on brain activity than petting a stuffed animal, even when that stuffed animal looks and feels almost identical to the real thing.
The study looked specifically at the frontal cortex in the brain, the area responsible for emotional processing, feeling, executive functioning, attention, memory, and problem-solving. This gives greater insight into and support of animal-based therapy, particularly for people recovering from strokes and other brain traumas.
Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a portable brain scanning technology, allowed researchers to measure and compare brain activity in participants while petting dogs vs. stuffed animals. Each participant used a scanner while interacting with one of three breeds of dogs: Jack Russell terrier, Goldendoodle, and golden retriever. Additionally, these interactions took place via three levels of proximity: watching the dog from across the room, sitting next to the dog, and petting the dog.
This sequence was repeated with one difference: The dog was replaced by a stuffed lion. The stuffed animal contained a hot water bottle inside its stuffing to recreate a similar body temperature as a live animal. The study found that the brain became more stimulated as the participant got closer to the dog or stuffed animal. However, that activity increased more with the live dog than with the stuffed animal.
According to researchers, “Positive nonverbal cues and reciprocal interactions provided by a living animal could in part explain this difference.”