Something Surprising Happens in Your Brain When You Look at Your Dog
New research explains why we love our dogs so much: They've taken over our brains.
Researchers at Azabu University in Japan discovered that as dogs gaze into their human owners' eyes, the hormone oxytocin, the "love hormone" which strengthens emotional bonds and links to maternal bonding, releases in both the dogs and the people.
It's also what our brains release when we orgasm, leading to a stronger feeling of connection after sex.
"Dogs successfully coexist with humans because they have adapted the bonding mechanism [used in] relations with humans," says author Miho Nagasawa in a video statement, according to Smithsonian magazine. "On the other hand, humans also likely went through some sort of evolution that allowed them to bond with another species."
Just like how humans bond the more we look into another human's eyes, owners and dogs become closer when they share the same long gaze. Mutually gazing increases these oxytocin levels.
The researchers even discovered if they gave a dog boosted oxytocin levels with a nasal spray, the female dogs will try to gaze into its owner's eyes longer and increase the owner's levels that way, essentially transferring that love hormone to get on the same level.
"There's a possibility that dogs cleverly and unknowingly utilize a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child," Takefumi Kikusui, another Azabu University researcher on the study, told the Washington Post. "On the other hand, humans are also unique in using eye gaze with other species, namely dogs, which suggests that both humans and dogs co-evolved during this process and both of them can obtain the advantages of this bonding."
With dogs, the more you gaze, the stronger the bond, which probably explains why some people love their dogs more than they love people. "In a way, domesticated dogs could hijack our social circuits, and we can hijack their social circuits," Steve Chang, an assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology at Yale (not a study participant), told the New York Times.
But Nagasawa and his team found this won't necessarily work with all canines, specifically wolves, since they perceive eye contact as a threat, not a mental hug.
So if you see a wolf, don't try to gaze into its eyes and become best friends — it may not go well. On the other hand, that feeling you get when you stare into the eyes of man's best friend isn't coming out of nowhere: It's simple science. Plus, it really gives weight to the power of puppy dog eyes.