If you’ve ever wondered why stroking your cat calms you down, Meg Daley Olmert can explain the brain chemistry behind it.
Her book, Made For Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, translates the science into the kind of explanation nonscientists can understand and appreciate.
In addition to her book, Meg has created and produced documentaries for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and PBS. She also writes a neuroscience blog for Psychology Today.
Meg and husband, Emmy-award winning writer Mike Olmert, spoke at the 2010 JRW conference. They live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, exploring the region’s many creeks by kayak with their two cats as passengers. Really. Pictures don’t lie.
Meg was interviewed by Jann Malone, former JRW board member, in June 2010.
QUESTION 1: What advice do you have for people who want to write about nature?
In one respect, writing about nature is no different than writing about anything else. It’s the quality of attention you bring to your subject that will decide what you will discover about it and have to tell others. But those of us who write about nature do catch a break, because we humans are hardwired to pay attention to the world around us.
The great philosopher Paul Shepard says that our ancient ancestors grew their big brains while devoting “tireless scrutiny” to the natural world. We inherited that brain, and the urge and capacity to focus on living things.
Sometimes, if you are very lucky, a pattern will be revealed so clearly, you will have to write about it. Then it isn’t work. Then it just pours out your finger tips.
QUESTION 2: Since you write about the natural world, do you do anything special to keep your awareness sharp? I’m guessing living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore makes it easier than living, say, in New York City.
To survive New York, you must master the art of tuning out, but even as a child I could not take my eyes off nature. I longed to be surrounded by nature and surrender my attention to it. I am so lucky to have fetched up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and I never take it for granted.
Kayaking gives me a duck’s point of view, and I can’t imagine a more valid way to see this world. It’s also one of the most ancient methods of exploration. Its quiet, repetitive, rhythmic action is meditative and appeals to the primal attention systems that best comprehend the natural world.
QUESTION 3: As a reader, I think it’s a good thing that you aren’t a trained neuroscientist. What is your background?
My background is pure liberal arts. I was not trained and paid to think narrowly about one tiny brain part or kind of behavior. I was free to read widely, and that’s where I found connections the scientists were unaware of. Also, I had experienced profound connections to animals.
QUESTION 4: What’s the key to translating the language of scientists into the language of nonscientist readers?
Of course it also meant I had to teach myself neuroscience so I could understand the reams of primary research I would have to read and to be able to ask the next probing question. Learning the terminology, jargon and neurophysiology was only the first part of the challenge. Scientific writing is not just technical, it’s dismal! I would say the thing that ended up mattering most was storytelling pure and simple.
I may not be a scientist, but I am an Irishman. For us, there is nothing more important than knowing how to tell a good story. And I grew up in New York City, surrounded by Jewish wit as well. So I know better than to tell a joke with no punch line.
QUESTION 5: How did Made for Each Other happen?
Made for Each Other grew out of a television series I was developing in 1993 on the history of humans and animals. I was interviewing a psychiatrist who created a small petting zoo at a residential treatment facility for boys with severe ADHD and behavior disorders. He told me how the boys who volunteered for the program became far less anxious and violent, more focused and relaxed, got better grades and developed strong bonds with the animals they cared for. He also told me about other studies that showed that when people were with dogs, their heart rate and blood pressure came down.
It was all very impressive, so I asked him how animals were able to calm the hearts and minds of humans. He theorized that it had something to do with the animal’s ability to grab and redirect our attention away from ourselves and that the “unconditional love” they show us had a strong palliative effect.
But, I was not convinced. The cardiac effect was biological, and I wanted to understand the biological mechanism animals were somehow triggering in humans. That, however, was a question, no one had asked. The next day, the New York Times had an article on the discovery that oxytocin — an ancient hormone made in the brain that causes labor contractions and breast-milk release – also creates lifelong mating bonds in rodents and promotes maternal attachment in humans. Nursing women, it explained, who have high levels of oxytocin are calmer, less aggressive and highly focused on their babies and bonded to them.
I immediately recognized how similar those effects were to the ones created in the petting zoo and called the scientists mentioned in the article to ask if oxytocin might also help to create the human-animal bond and the therapeutic effects of contact with animals.
Dr. Sue Carter, then at the University of Maryland, said yes. She also said she wanted to meet me and invited me to her lab. It seems — even though I had no scientific background — I asked a very original and important question. She and her colleagues liked the way I thought and appreciated that I could write about their work better than they could.
These were the pioneering days of research into oxytocin, and over the next 17 years studies would show just how good my hunch was. Oxytocin appears to be a key ingredient in a newly discovered brain network of anti-stress that promotes social engagement and mental and physical well being.
In 2003, South African researchers showed that friendly contact with dogs releases oxytocin and other calming and reward agents in our brains as well as in the dogs. With that piece of the puzzle in place, I began my book and six years later saw it published.