On February 11, SALON.COM posted an interview with me and a podcast of my talk with Katherine Mieszkowski.  Here's the link. I hope you enjoy it. 


This from the February 2, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind

Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond
by Meg Daley Olmert. Da Capo Press, 2009

In 1980 Brooklyn College health scientist Erika Friedmann designed a survey to assess how social support affects survival after a heart attack. Just for fun, she threw in a question about pet ownership. When she analyzed her results months later, she was startled to find that pets—more than support from family and friends—kept people alive. Patients who owned pets were 22 percent more likely to be alive a year after their heart attack than those who did not.

No one knew at the time why pets were such excellent “medicine.” But in the decades since, research has revealed that animals and people sharea special bond that is based not only on emotions but also on biology—and that relationships with animals keep us healthier and happier. As Meg Daley Olmert writes in her heartwarming and fascinating book Made for Each Other, the human-animal bond, which developed over the course of several millennia, shaped our evolution and that of the animals we love.

About 100,000 years ago, the theory goes, an ice age forced our herbivore hominid ancestors to expand their diet to include meat. Those who had the courage to draw near to the animals they feared probably had some help from oxytocin, a hormone that Olmert argues is key to the animal-human bond. Oxytocin—best known as the hormone that facilitates the mother-child bond—is also important for overcoming fear. The first hominids to approach animals most likely had higher-than-normal levels of oxytocin in their brains. And oxytocin has other effects: it promotes social bonding, reduces stress levels, increases antioxidant production and promotes happiness. So when oxy-tocin-rich hominids started focusing on animals, even though their intention was to hunt them, they probably also started bonding with them. This emotional connection then released more oxytocin, building a self-propagating cycle.

Over the course of the next 100,000 years, human-animal relationships solidified. According to Olmert, women occasionally breast-fed wolf pups and children sometimes suckled milk from cows’ udders. This bond started influencing the evolution of both humans and animals as we lived together and learned from one another. The surges of oxytocin our ancestors enjoyed also kept them healthy and happy. We needed animals, and they needed us.

Today in our urban and technological culture, we have only the faintest memories of these incredible ties. But our continued love for pets is evidence that we have not forgotten entirely. Still, only 63 percent of Americans own pets. As a population, we may not be getting the same oxytocin doses we used to, which could have negative effects on our well-being. Olmert makes a convincing case that we are better off with them in our lives.

“Clinically speaking, animals are a homeostatic necessity,” she writes. “Like breathing, they can only be denied for so long.”

Canine behavior specialist, Marc Bekoff's review in the March issue of New Scientist

Why pets give us warm and fuzzy feelings

(Image: Da Capo Press)

(Image: Da Capo Press)

WHY and how do we bond with other beings? The rapidly growing field of anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships, is attracting scholars from a wide range of disciplines who want to answer this question.

To this end, Meg Daley Olmert has written a fascinating, wide-ranging and easy read about the biology of the human-animal bond. It comes with a strong endorsement from renowned scientist E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biophilia" to highlight our innate attraction to the natural world. Olmert's goal is to show that "our curiosity about other living things... is biological, is genetic, and can stand up to scientific scrutiny".

In Made for Each Other, Olmert weaves together the latest science - from archaeology and psychology to evolutionary biology and neuroscience - with engaging stories to make a strong case that we need animals in our lives and that there are deep-rooted reasons for why this is so. And it all comes down to one important chemical: oxytocin.

Oxytocin rules, both in Olmert's book and in our brains. The ubiquitous hormone, which "flows through and between all mammals", has amazing affiliative powers and inspires an urge to connect with others. It is well known that oxytocin is the chemical responsible for social bonding in humans; it is the same chemical that mediates the relationship between mothers and infants. Oxytocin helps us to read others' minds, and it inspires trust - people who inhale oxytocin are more trusting in games involving the exchange of money.

Now scientists are learning that it has powerful effects in human-animal relationships as well. For example, research shows that oxytocin levels almost double in people and in dogs when humans talk to and stroke their canine friends (beta endorphin and dopamine levels also increase). This surely has its roots in the domestication process.

I would have liked to see more discussion in the book of the treatment of animals. Olmert briefly notes: "Ethical and practical concerns prevent the kinds of brain-invasive research that has told us so much about the biology of bonding in other mammalian species." If, as Olmert shows, animals are so important to our physical and emotional health, if we share hardware with them and need them in our lives, why are we comfortable using them in ways that compromise their well-being? What allows us to override the oxytocin momentum for primarily human ends?

If animals are so important to us, why do we use them in ways that compromise their well-being?

Without animals in our lives, says Olmert, we don't feel as good about ourselves. Her argument is convincing, but I'm wary of using a single factor explanation for the wide range of phenomena she covers - including bonding, mind-reading and trust. Nonetheless, if she is correct, perhaps we will soon see "Big O" pills or sprays on the market. There are practical difficulties in getting oxytocin into the brain, but if it's profitable, the drug companies will find a way.

But perhaps we should make changes in our lifestyles rather than depend on yet another drug that moves us further away from who we are wired to be. Henry Miller wrote, "If we don't always start from Nature we certainly come to her in our hour of need."

Olmert offers important suggestions for how we can get back in touch with ourselves to keep the oxytocin flowing. I suggest reading this intriguing book - it could be a huge oxytocin booster and a lesson for those who want to know why, as Olmert writes: "The satisfaction that washes over us as we watch our pets sleep is the ancient reminder that when all is well in their world, all is well in ours."


Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His book Wild Justice: The moral lives of animals is co-written with Jessica Pierce and published by the University of Chicago Press in May

And The Boston Globe reviewed my book as a "nice companion volume" to Temple Grandin's new book, Animals Make Us Human. It's a great honor.


Creature features

Two new books illuminate animals' astonishing abilities as well as their needs

By Vicki Constantine Croke  |  February 15, 2009

Dogs are so tuned in to us that they are the only animals who can follow our gaze to find food. Black cats are friendlier than other cats (studies have shown a correlation between fur color and behavior). Riding a horse may be 20 times more dangerous than riding a motorcycle. Yelling at cows scares them in a way that equally loud noises don't. And freaking pigs out at the slaughterhouse affects the quality of the meat - a practical incentive to treat them better.

"Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals," by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, is full of small fascinating facts like those, but the epiphanies and insights come in much larger sizes too.

For instance, so much of the common wisdom among lots of dog trainers has been based on a flawed notion of wolf dominance. "Our whole image of wolf packs and alphas is completely wrong," Grandin points out. "Instead, wolves live the way people do: In families made up of a mom, a dad, and their children." What she is saying feels pretty revolutionary. Unless you have a group of dogs in your care, you don't need to be "pack leader" for your golden retriever or poodle, just a sensible and in-control parent.

Grandin goes on to discuss measurable metabolic differences between aggressive and nonaggressive dogs, and which breeds exhibit the most wolf-like behaviors. (She says putting different purebreds in the same household could be playing with fire, since some breeds might simply not know how to read a threat like raised hackles from another dog, and might not be able to communicate submissive intent.) She tells us why making your dog wait at the front door is important - it's good for a dog to show "impulse control and emotional restraint," which helps him to learn to keep conflicts from escalating into rage. Grandin also introduces us to some incredible things: "anxiety wraps" and "full-body restraint" in the form of oat-filled boxes - innovative devices being used to help problems like anxiety and even aggression. Grandin says no one is really sure why these things work.

And dogs make up just one chapter.

The book, a sort of instructional manual on the core emotions that make animals - cats, cows, pigs, chickens, tigers even - tick, and how we can keep them happier and mentally healthier, provides an illuminated tour, using the latest research available.

Grandin and Johnson also collaborated on the blockbuster "Animals in Translation." That book, like this one, is written in the first person and from Grandin's point of view, a particularly effective choice. In it, Grandin explains why she, as an autistic person who "thinks in pictures," can see the world as we believe many animals do. Her unique perspective is like one of those fairy tales that reveal a magical kingdom lurking in a cranny of your kitchen. Except that the portal isn't your cupboard, it's your cat or dog.

And she makes you see because she's as straightforward as she is pragmatic. At one point she reports that some people don't realize that if you hold down a wild animal, "you stress the crap out of it."

Grandin merrily and politely takes on dog trainers, animal-welfare organizations, and ranchers by name, but without pretending to know what she doesn't. Sometimes she'll confess, "I don't know this and I don't think anyone else does, either" - a frankness that makes you trust her even more.

My bet is that most animal lovers will come away from this book making some practical adjustment in the daily life of the animal closest to them. And yet, ultimately, this book is much more than a simple primer. Species by species, insight by insight, it builds into something kind of momentous: the realization or confirmation (depending on your perspective) that animals possess very complex minds and that science is just beginning to provide tiny glimpses of this uncharted territory.

Meg Daley Olmert's "Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond," which focuses more narrowly on the "animals making us human" theme, is a nice companion volume to Grandin's.

Olmert weaves together the evolution of the bond between people and animals with the latest science on the biochemistry of the connection - "the hormonal basis of biophilia," our genetic leaning toward animals and nature, as the book says. It turns out to have a lot to do with that the amazing hormone oxytocin, which famously binds mothers and newborn babies. Oxytocin, which influences bonding and trust, is released by the bucket when we interact with animals (and it's mutual).

How do you fill a whole book with that? Well, from the fact that the majority of images the cave painters chose to depict are animals, to science that shows that patting an animal at 40 strokes a minute brings out the optimal antistress effect (and happens to be the natural rate that most of us pat our pets at), Olmert has a lot to talk about.

Vicki Constantine Croke is the author of "The Lady and the Panda." Her weekly TV show, "The Secret Life of Animals," airs Sunday nights on NECN.  

Sy Montogomery, author of The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood wrote this 5-Star review for Amazon.com:

"MADE FOR EACH OTHER is the most fascinating and important book I've read in a long time. Meg Olmert's thesis--that our natural bond with our fellow animals has a basis in our brain chemistry--explains a great deal, not only about our relationship with pets, livestock and wildlife but also about human evolution. The book is a fun, fast read, too, studded with gems of facts: the Egyptians seem to have tamed hyenas and giraffes. Plants recognize other plants that are related to them, and refrain from competing with relatives. When foxes are bred for docility of temperament, within a few generations their markings begin to look like those of border collies. Wow! I learned a great deal from this book, and much of it was very good news indeed: that our very biochemistry weds us, and our happiness, to the rest of animate creation. "

And this great synopsis by Sandy Nelson in the Santa Fe New Mexican on February 5, 2009.

Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the word biophilia in 1987 to describe our species’ “innate tendency to focus upon life and lifelike forms and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally.” Since then, many studies have scientifically documented the mental and physical benefits of pet ownership or regular contact with animals.. Meg Daley Olmert, a writer and producer of documentary films for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and PBS, pulls together these studies and other recent research in behavioral psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and zoology and comes to some fascinating conclusions in Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond — a science-based answer to skeptics who ridicule anecdotal claims of an animal-human bond as sentimental, anthropomorphic nonsense. 

The biological foundation of this bond, Olmert writes, is the hormone oxytocin, manufactured in the hypothalamus and released into the mammalian body via the pituitary gland. First identified in 1902 as the hormone that stimulates labor contractions, oxytocin is one of the body’s superchemicals: among other things, it prompts lactation and the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a natural tranquilizer that overrides the fight-or-flight impulse and encourages the development of social skills. (Birds, reptiles, and fish possess hormones that perform similar roles, underscoring the evolutionary usefulness of this chemical. As Olmert writes, “Oxytocin appears to be an elaboration of more primitive chemicals that have promoted growth and reproduction since the appearance of single-celled animals.”)

The “dreamy contentedness” and tranquil feeling of connection brought to us by oxytocin can be stimulated by touching, rubbing, and often just studying another creature, according to studies cited by the author. If oxytocin rewards us for bonding with one another and with animals in today’s world, she asserts, it must have helped us evolve from prey to supreme predator. The cave paintings of Ice Age artists demonstrate how astutely they observed animals, and these observations helped early humans learn to hunt some species and tame and domesticate others.

But something happened on the way to the top, Olmert writes. Technological advances pushed people from farm to factory, and most of us lost our connection with animals. The feeling of alienation from the natural world wasn’t just psychological; it was biochemical. Many of the drugs used to treat depression, autism, and other behavioral disorders also increase oxytocin levels, and “none of this is lost on the drug companies.”

Until an oxytocin pill is developed, Olmert writes, “we can write our own oxytocin prescription” by pursuing stable relationships with friends, relatives, and animals. Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher did that at the Devereux Foundation beginning in 1991. After he found that taking responsibility for a small animal in the institute’s zoo program demonstrably improved the conduct and concentration of children with severe attention deficit disorder, his pioneering clinical trial of a nonpharmaceutical animal therapy was declared a success and became a permanent program at Devereux.

“Someday we may have an oxytocin pill to help make our lives more livable,” Olmert concludes. “But even then, our best bet against the twenty-first century blues will be to keep our friends and family close, and our pets closer.”



Why having a dog is like being on drugs TheStar.com - Mind & Mood - Why having a dog is like being on drugs

Rover registers your slightest twitch

It's not your mind Rover is reading when he gets his leash, it's your muscles.

As a result of being prey for a million years, our muscles make micro-movements when we're just thinking of a certain motion, says the author of a new book, Made for Each Other: The Biology Behind the Human-Animal Bond.

Life was tough before we became predators, says author Meg Daley Olmert. "We were so outnumbered and we were smaller and weaker and slower than all the other animals.

"It made good sense that we would develop the systems that actually prepare us, get us absolutely ready to go ... like in a race, so that when we wanted to move, our body was primed and practised and able to execute the move perfectly," she says.

That's what makes Fido start pacing, she says. These movements, imperceptible to the naked eye, were first proposed at the turn of the 20th century, after a German math teacher claimed his horse could spell, as well as answer math and science questions. "Clever Hans" toured Germany, tapping the answers to questions such as, "What's the square root of 16?"

An independent commission sided with the horse, but a psychologist proved Hans was only accurate when the questioner was up close and knew the answer. Although unaware, questioners would ever-so-slightly relax when Hans reached the right number of taps. He got a carrot every time.

"What they discovered with Hans was that horses are brilliant muscle readers and dogs appear to be just as good," Daley Olmert says.

Thoughts are present for seven seconds before conscious awareness of them, according to some researchers. "In that time, your whole body has started to prepare for that walk ... and dogs seem to be able to read that so clearly," she says.

Barbara Turnbull

Studies show contact almost doubles levels of oxytocin and serotonin
March 04, 2009
Barbara Turnbull
Living reporter

It turns out dogs really are bred in the bone – theirs and ours.

So are horses, pigs, cows and all animals that get the oxytocin system flowing, according to a new book that gives sound scientific reason for why we spend billions on the quality and quantity of our pets' lives.

Made for Each Other: The Biology Behind the Human-Animal Bond, by Meg Daley Olmert, offers the proof most pet owners don't need about how and why we bond to animals.

"It is run on the same physiology that allows a mother to recognize her baby as her own and want to pick it up and hold it to her breast and protect it," Daley Olmert says. "That's the piece of the puzzle that nobody had put together."

Oxytocin is best known as the hormone that causes labour and lactation in nursing mothers. But we all produce it, need lots of it and, when we have animals in our lives, it becomes a "renewable system" of relieving stress.

The science of social bonding has only been understood in the past 15 years. Oxytocin, and other chemicals that make up the social brain network, exist and work powerfully in all kinds of animals, promoting reproduction and social behaviours. Its origins stretch back to the earliest people, who began to share caves with wolves.

Humans had been prey for animals for a million years. What changed?

Her book theorizes that the earliest interactions created a powerful chemical feedback system that became genetically advantageous and part of the evolutionary process, taming and, at the extreme level, domesticating the animals that made development possible.

Daley Olmert's early life was spent in a New York housing project, where she had no pets, but a definite "way" with animals. She went from working as a veterinary technician to writing National Geographic documentaries and to a show that examined the ways wild animals assist humans.

After learning about oxytocin in people, she participated in a University of Maryland study of the hormone. At the same time, a flood of studies showed oxytocin stimulates the cortices that control emotions, quiet fears and can switch off the powerful defence system known as "fight or flight."

It isn't voluntary, which is why our species survives, and it isn't specific, making "beauty" literally in the eye of the beholder, Daley Olmert says. "If you perceive something as being not threatening and attractive, it will release this chemistry."

That chemistry makes us comfortable, prompting us to be gregarious and enter social relationships, animal or human, she says.

So it's not "unconditional love," as so many animal lovers cite for the reason they're devoted to their pets. "It's highly conditioned by this chemistry," Daley Olmert says.

"Studies have shown that human and animal contact, specifically with people and dogs, almost doubles levels of oxytocin and serotonin," she says. "At this point, it appears that our pets are the most powerful releasers of oxytocin in our brains and that could account for the fact that when your pet dies, you feel like a cannonball got fired through you."

Urbanization is another reason we need our pets so badly, the book says. Farms kept us steeped in oxytocin for 10,000 years. We relied on animals for everything from heat to strength to food, maintaining a critical feedback system.

It has taken only 100 years for most of us to leave farm life. There has also been a dramatic increase in psychological problems, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, hypertension and stroke, Daley Olmert points out. Coincidence?

"These are all the type of psychological and physiological effects you would expect to see (with oxytocin deprivation)," she says. "I would extend that to the care and emotions being lavished on pets. It's a natural corrective.

"(Pets) certainly have stepped in to fill the loneliness void that modern society has created," she says.

And this from my home town paper:


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Animal Attraction

Sunday, March 15, 2009; B07 

Made for Each Other

The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond

By Meg Daley Olmert. 291 pp. $26

As the Obama family gets ready to welcome a pet into the White House, a new book explores how humans came to let animals into their homes.

Before man was top dog, argues Meg Daley Olmert in her insightful book, he was lunch. To avoid being eaten, our ancestors probably spent hours watching animals, "intuiting their next move, sensing their emotions and pain." These encounters, she suggests, "could have sparked in the growing human heart and mind a rudimentary sense of connection." Like wolves, humans lived in packs and shared child-care duties. A lactating woman comforting a mewling pup might have instinctively let it suckle; more than one anthropologist has reported such behavior among tribes worldwide.

Olmert also suggests that environmental conditions, such as ice ages, sometimes put humans and animals in such close proximity that they could either compete for resources or help each other. Eventually, she writes, the "chemistry flowing between the species was so strong it turned wolf into dog and humans into herders and breeders."

To underscore modern humans' need for close contact with animals, Olmert stresses the positive responses to dogs among children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And she suggests that such advances as milking genetically modified goats for a drug to treat human blood disorders "may bring the human-animal bond to its ultimate conclusion."

-- Susan P. Williams

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