What can animals read from human faces?

A smile can speak a thousand words but those words may remain in the wilderness if the recipient doesn’t speak human. Of course animals have many ways in which to interpret our emotions and intentions. They can listen to our voices, smell our bodily chemicals, touch us with their paws, hands and claws, taste us with their overworked tongues and they can see us with observant eyes.

They can see us.

This final sense is quite curious when we are thinking about animals watching us. What is it they are actually seeing? We know they understand many forms of visible body language but what about our faces? Is there any evidence they understand anything from our facial expressions and if there is, what would they be basing their understanding on? Is there anything we could do to aid their understanding of our facial expressions? Racing ahead, what would any inter-species facial communication between humans and animals mean for possible future meetings with extra-terrestrials?

Let’s begin by looking at some of the evidence available. In 2004, the Journal of Comparative Psychology published the results of a study that showed dolphins instinctively comprehend human gazing to the extent that they understand the difference between what the study called static gazing and dynamic gazing. Static gazing being an idle stare with no action required and dynamic gazing meaning a gaze that prompted the dolphins to interact with an object. No verbal commands or prior training were needed for the dolphins to comprehend the difference. Read the rest

Why we enjoy stroking animals and popping bubblewrap

In Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, one of the central characters is Lennie, a man with some form of mental development disability who enjoys petting mice and puppies. Only he enjoys it so much he can’t stop and often ends up squashing them literally to death.

The thing is, evidence suggests that the mice and puppies were probably enjoying the petting before Lennie’s fat fingers squashed them. In 2013 researchers from the California Institute of Technology published the results of a study done on mice that showed there is a specific type of sensory cell in skin that responds to careful stroking. The lead researcher on the study suggested we could one day have a skin lotion that makes us feel better.

It’s all very well that mice enjoy being stroked, but why did Lennie -- and why do many other people -- derive pleasure from stroking soft animals? Numerous research studies suggest that during stroking, receptors in the skin send signals to various parts of the brain. This can be measured using MRI scans of the brain during stroking that show increased neuronal activity associated with increased blood flow. The affected areas of the brain light up even when the person involved is unconscious.

I think Lennie should have been given a stress ball or something to occupy him, although I’ve no idea if it would have been a sufficient alternative to petting mice. Sometimes such toys are not always what they seem:

As we know, there are plenty of materials that are lovely to touch. Read the rest