How pets relieve anxiety and anger

We have a growing understanding of how they emotionally impact us.

How pets relieve anxiety and anger

The road to domestication for a variety of pets, dogs and cats at the top of this list, seems to have been a combination of food and resource sharing, companionship, and reproductive success. While vast differences exist in mammalian behavior, having a reliable place to sleep and regular food unties us.

We gaze in awe and at times terror at their animalistic behaviors, perhaps forgetting who the most destructive animal to have ever inhabited this planet is. At least they seem to have forgiven us, considering they've stuck by our side for millennia.

While reasons for domestication are open for debate, Abigail Tucker argues that cats, for one, appear to have cultivated a temperament acceptable to humans on their own accord. One necessary quality, she writes, is that the animals we keep around need to stay calm. While felines can appear to be anything but — our Maine Coon runs laps after a trip to the litter box, his way of confusing predators that might be tracking his scent — house cats remain within acceptable boundaries. Barely, at times, but still.

A mixture of chill and confidence draws us to them. Tucker continues,

What we call 'friendliness' in our pet cats is, in part, a lack of aggression. But it is also a lack of fear, and an inborn boldness.

It is also, she writes, a “whittled-down fight-or-flight response." Domesticated animals are better able to deal with their emotions than their feral counterparts. Their limbic system is more regulated, and it seems this quality is affecting their human friends.

The NY Times reports service dogs are helping veterans cope with reintegration into society after their tours. Iraq war veteran Benjamin Stepp was matched with a retriever mix named Arleigh who can tell when his master is tightening up.

The dog senses when his agitation and anxiety begin rising, and sends him signals to begin the controlled breathing and other exercises that help to calm him down.

The field of emotional contagions is growing as researchers better understand animal cognition, as well as our own. Subconscious signaling is an important marker for survival in the wild, which in part rely on a recognition of behavioral patterns.

Memories, for example, are processed in the hippocampus, but type of memory matters. Procedural tasks, like tying your shoelaces, is stored in your basal ganglia, while emotional memories, like the trauma veterans face in combat, heads to their amygdala, which is also the region where the fight-flight-freeze response warns your nervous system of impending danger.

There is speculation that memories are an evolutionary adaptation to the art of prediction. In a strange twist of biology our ability to foresee the future might have created a cognitive storehouse of events and tasks during the early formation of our brain. Since we use the same regions for both looking forward and remembering back, it appears that memories were a side effect of speculation.

The problem is our nervous system is not always great at prediction. Past events influence how we both predict the future as well as how we act when it arrives. For people suffering from PTSD every loud sound or questionable facial expression rings an alarm. A similar response occurs in those suffering anxiety disorder — commonplace triggers become overwhelming stimuli.

Emotions do not belong to humans alone. We are visual learners, though much of our environmental awareness comes from more intuitive measures that are not necessarily consciously processed. With training service dogs like Arleigh learn to pay attention to their owner's muscle twitches, pantomimes, and even scents, responding in an emphatic way to cools their impending distress.

Why we've cohabited with certain animals while shunning and destroying others is often a question of tolerance combined with mimicry. Cat's eyes, Tucker writes, are closer together than most mammals, mimicking human expressions. We're more likely to relate to a cat than a pig for this reason. This could play a part in why over six hundred million house cats inhabit the planet.

A deeper level is that pets understand our emotional seesawing. Those who believe cats don't care about the humans they live with have likely never lived with one, or perhaps shared space with one too close to its feral roots. Dogs are more amiable in general, however, making them better suited for therapy. This is in part because dogs are comfortable in any environment so long as people they trust are around, whereas cats are creatures of territory. Remove them from their stalking zone and it takes much longer for them to adapt.

Domesticated animals experience longer, healthier lives than their feral cousins. We exist together for a number of reasons, companionship being near or at the top of the list. That they relieve anxiety is an important reason to share space. Humans have disconnected from nature in many ways, but our relationship with other species is a powerful reminder of the power of cohabitation. If only we treated other humans so well.


Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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Culture & Religion

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.