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Dogs mirror stress levels of their owners

The owner's personality was the most important factor in examining the stress-hormone relationship between pet and owner.

Photo credit: Xan Griffin on Unsplash
  • A new study found that dogs and their owners show similar levels of the stress hormone cortisol over time.
  • The dog-owner cortisol relationship seems to be related to the owner's personality, as measured by the Big 5 model.
  • Ultimately, dog owners needn't worry that they're stressing out their pet; not all cortisol indicates "bad" stress."


Just how empathetic are dogs?

A new study published in Scientific Reports suggests that dogs mirror the stress levels of their owners. The study examined levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — as measured in hair samples taken from owners and their dogs: 25 border collies and 33 Shetland sheepdogs. Results showed a "significant interspecies correlations in long-term stress."

"This is the first time we've seen a long-term synchronization in stress levels between members of two different species," Lina Roth, an ethologist who led the work at Linköping University in Sweden, told The Guardian.

But surely other factors — how long dogs spent alone, whether they had a garden to play in, how much physical activity they got — also played a big role in stress levels, right? Not so much. What's more, the dog's own personality — as measured by an owner-answered questionnaire — didn't seem to have a significant effect on cortisol levels either.

What did matter was the owner's personality. After participants answered questions from the Big 5 personality inventory, the researchers found that the personality traits neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness were strongly correlated with owner-dog cortisol levels. Owners that were more conscientious and open had dogs with higher cortisol levels, but only in the winter. Meanwhile, neuroticism was most strongly correlated with dog cortisol levels — both in the winter and the summer.

However, only female dogs' cortisol levels increased when their owners scored high in neuroticism; male dogs with neuroticism-prone owners actually had lower cortisol levels.

Why? Possibly because neurotic owners tend to seek more comfort from their dogs, causing the pets to feel less stress.

"There is some indication that humans scoring high on neuroticism form a strong attachment bond to their dogs and that these individuals, to a greater extent than others, use their dog as a social supporter whilst also simultaneously functioning as a social supporter for their dog," the researchers wrote. "This, in turn, may lead to a positive modulation of the stress response for both parties."

Roth et al.

The researchers also compared two sets of dogs: those who compete in shows, and companion pets. The results showed a stronger correlation between the competition pets and owners, possibly because competitions foster a strong relationship between the two.

"Dogs are affected by their owners' distress and respond with consoling behaviours," James Burkett at Emory University, who wasn't involved in the study, told The Guardian. "We now know that dogs are also affected by their owners' personalities and stress levels. While this may be common sense for dog owners, empirical research is still catching up to our intuitions about animal empathy."

So, does this mean you should feel guilty about stressing your dog out if you share the personality traits of the owners in the study? Not at all. Roth told The Associated Press that cortisol doesn't always indicate negative stress — it could just be a dog getting excited before going on a walk. Additionally, she noted that researchers are still studying the relationship between owner-dog stress levels, and it's possible that dogs might hold some effect on owners' stress levels as well.

Ultimately, her advice is simple: "Just be with your dog and have fun."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

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