By Guest Nicole
A team of researchers at SISSA have conducted a series of olfactory tests on alexithymia, a condition marked by reduced emotional awareness and the inability to describe experienced emotions
Do you express your emotions? Are you able to name them, talk about them, relate to your feelings? If your answer is not an unqualified yes, you might be among the 10 percent of the healthy population who has difficulty processing the emotions they experience: a psychological condition known as alexithymia. An alexithymic individual has difficulty, to a greater or lesser degree, in relating to the sensations - ranging from joy to fear, from disgust to anger - which make up our experience. New research conducted at SISSA in Trieste and published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports seeks to shed light on new aspects of the condition, using a hitherto completely untested approach. Specifically, given the close link which exists between the perception of smells and emotions, the scientists Cinzia Cecchetto, Raffaella Rumiati and Marilena Aiello used olfactory tests: "There is a partial overlap between the areas in our brains which deal with olfactory perception and those which process emotions. A test such as this may, therefore, be particularly suitable for studying this specific psychological condition," explains Aiello, who coordinated the research.
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By Guest Nicole
April 7, 2017
Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien
Humans are able to interpret the behavior of others by attributing mental states to them (and to themselves). By adopting the perspectives of other persons, they can assume their emotions, needs and intentions and react accordingly. In the animal kingdom, the ability to attribute mental states (Theory of Mind) is a highly contentious issue. Cognitive biologists could demonstrate with a new test procedure that dogs are not only able to identify whether a human has an eye on a food source and, therefore, knows where the food has been hidden. They can also apply this knowledge in order to correctly interpret cues by humans and find food they cannot see themselves.
Dogs are able to identify the human having an eye on a hidden food source.
Credit: Ludwig Huber/Vetmeduni Vienna
Humans are able to interpret the behaviour of others by attributing mental states to them (and to themselves). By adopting the perspectives of other persons, they can assume their emotions, needs and intentions and react accordingly. In the animal kingdom, the ability to attribute mental states (Theory of Mind) is a highly contentious issue. Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna could prove with a new test procedure that dogs are not only able to identify whether a human has an eye on a food source and, therefore, knows where the food has been hidden. They can also apply this knowledge in order to correctly interpret cues by humans and find food they cannot see themselves. This perspective taking ability is an important component of social intelligence. It helps dogs to cope with the human environment. The results have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.
The so-called Theory of Mind describes the ability in humans to understand mental states in conspecifics such as emotions, intentions, knowledge, beliefs and desires. This ability develops in humans within the first four or five years of life while it is usually denied in animals. Indications that animals can understand mental states or even states of knowledge of others have only been found in apes and corvids so far. Dogs have been tested several times, but the results were poor and contradictory.
With a new experimental approach, cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute could now provide solid evidence for dogs being able to adopt our perspective. By adopting the position of a human and following their gaze, dogs understand what the human could see and, consequently, know. This ability to ascribe knowledge is only a component of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but an important one.
Identifying the right informant
The so-called Guesser-Knower paradigm is a standard test in research into the attribution of knowledge to others. This experiment involves two persons: a "Knower" who hides food, invisibly for the dog, in one of several food containers or knows where somebody else has hided it, and a "Guesser." The Guesser has either not been in the room or covered her eyes during the hiding of the food. A non-transparent wall blocks the animals' view of the food being hidden. After that, the two humans become informants by pointing to different food containers.
The Knower always points to the baited container and the Guesser to another one. All containers smell of food. "To get the food, the dogs have to understand who knows the hiding place (Knower) and who does not and can, therefore, only guess (Guesser). They must identify the informant they can rely on if they have to decide for one food container," said principal investigator Ludwig Huber. In approximately 70 per cent of the cases the dogs chose the container indicated by the Knower - and thus were able to successfully accomplish the test. This result was independent of the position of the food container, the person acting as the Knower and where the Guesser was looking.
Dogs can adopt human perspectives
The only aim of this test series, however, was to independently confirm a study carried out in New Zealand. Clear evidence of dogs being able to adopt our perspective and take advantage of it was provided in a new test developed by the team, the so-called "Guesser looking away" test.
In this new experiment, a third person in the middle hides the food. This person does not give cues later on. The potential informants were kneeing left and right of this hider and looked to the same side and slightly down. Thus, one of the two persons looked towards the baiter, the other person looked away. "This means that the tested dogs, in order to get the food, had to judge who is the Knower by adopting the informants' perspectives and following their gazes," explained Huber. Even in this test, which is very difficult for the animals, approximately 70 per cent of the trials had been mastered.
Adopting the human perspective leads to invisible food
Being able to adopt the perspective of a human does, however, not require the ability to understand intentions or wishes. "But the study showed that dogs can find out what humans or conspecifics can or cannot see," explained Huber. "By adopting the positions of humans and following their gazes geometrically, they find out what humans see and, therefore, know - and consequently whom they can trust or not."
In similar experiments, chimpanzees and few bird species such as scrub jays and ravens were able to understand the state of knowledge and also the intentions of conspecifics and modify their own behaviour accordingly. For dogs, there have only been specualtions and vague indications so far. But dogs understand our behaviour very well, for example our degree of attention. They can learn from directly visible cues such as gestures or gazes. Thus, they are able to find food even if their view of it has been blocked. "The ability to interpret our behaviour and anticipate our intentions, which has obviously developed through a combination of domestication and individual experience, seems to have supported the ability to adopt our perspective," said Huber. "It still remains unclear which cognitive mechanisms contribute to this ability. But it helps dogs to find their way in our world very well."
Materials provided by Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Amélie Catala, Britta Mang, Lisa Wallis, Ludwig Huber. Dogs demonstrate perspective taking based on geometrical gaze following in a Guesser–Knower task. Animal Cognition, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1082-x
By Guest Nicole
Pets and Emotion
Animals are affected by our ongoing feelings and states of mind, particularly those of the people with whom they are most bonded. Most dogs and cats form a strong emotional connection with the people they depend on for food, shelter, safety, and affection. That's why they so readily tune in to our emotional cues.
Except perhaps for a few brief verbal commands or names, animals rely completely on the emotional messages communicated by our posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, and, well, just plain feelings in the air, which are like an emotional climate that may be generally sunny or cloudy, mild or extreme. Shorter-term feelings are more like today's weather.
Smell is a primary sense for dogs and cats. Just as we might detect a subtle smell in the air when rain is on the way, they can easily detect stress chemicals your body emits when you are upset. It tells them something is wrong but they may not understand why. Say you are feeling anxious and you are broadcasting some level of fear. They sense there is something to be afraid of, but what?
Imagine yourself in that situation. The same thing happens to us as young children. Say your parents are anxious, whether or not it’s warranted. It's like they are saying, "Watch out, there is something bad coming!" Wouldn't you be looking for it all the time? Get a little jumpy?
Dogs and cats often soak up angry, sad, or fearful feelings from family members upset over issues that have nothing to do with them
That is what happens for animals. They don't know that you were just unfriended on Facebook. They may imagine there is a dangerous predator or intruder out there. So if a random pedestrian strolls by (like me?), they run out and bark their heads off. They sense there is danger afoot and their job is to protect your home.
In the same way, dogs and cats often soak up angry, sad, or fearful feelings from family members upset over issues that have nothing to do with them. Frequent arguments are especially stressful for animals, who may react with irritability or fear. Emotional tensions can trigger issues that have a behavioral component, such as increased aggressiveness, destructiveness, or extreme restlessness. Or, they might impact the nervous system and contribute to irritated skin, ears, bladder, and the like.
Just like animals suffering from losses and changes, a chronically emotionally stressed animal who has a predisposition to skin or bladder problems, for example, might scratch or urinate still more. This in turn will further irritate the tissues and create a vicious cycle. Whatever discomfort is already there becomes more noticeable and annoying when the emotional pitch is heightened.
Anxiety About Our Animals
Sometimes the anxiety a person broadcasts is actually about the animal herself. Say you become upset on seeing something about your dog or cat that does not seem right. Whether it's a behavioral change or a physical symptom, your mind launches into a whole imagined scenario—the terrible diagnosis, the ineffective treatment, the euthanasia, the loss of your friend.
Your animal senses this anxiety, particularly when it is directed toward her. Something must be wrong! Your fears only increase her own anxiety, which may already be heightened by the discomfort of any developing illness. She may even begin to hide.
Not only will fear and stress from this danger signal diminish your animal's capacity to heal, but they can also affect effective treatment. Clients have often told me that, acting from fear or a sense of urgency, they made decisions that they later regretted. For example, when animals get tumors or cancers, clients often feel under tremendous pressure to have the growths immediately removed, as though every passing hour were critical. But there is no evidence to support such urgency. In fact, the stress of the surgery can make the animal even more difficult to treat using less drastic and more natural methods.
True healing of chronic disease requires, above all, patience
Similarly, concern about a bout of intense scratching from skin allergies can drive clients to get corticosteroids and undo several weeks of progress from nutritional and homeopathic treatment.
True healing of chronic disease requires, above all, patience. The desire for immediate relief is very seductive. That's the appeal of using strong drugs to control symptoms. But, since they don't actually cure the underlying ailment, the illness recurs, gradually worsening over time or taking a different and more difficult form.
Excessive anxiety can also push people to jump from one veterinarian or treatment to the next, whether conventional or holistic. This can overwhelm and confuse your pet's body, never allowing any one method a chance to work. On the flip side, worry and discouragement can lead people to give up on medical treatment without really trying.
I know this is a challenge. Understandably, you don't want to stay with a treatment that is not working, yet you don't want to jump ship before giving it a chance. The best advice I can give is the understanding that true healing of the body takes time. It took time to get where it is, and it will take time to undo the damage.
Even our own illness may affect our pet's health in ways we don't quite understand. Veterinarians often see cases in which pets develop the same problems as the people they live with, at a frequency seemingly beyond coincidence.
Many experiments and anecdotes attest to a mysterious, seemingly extrasensory connection between animals and people
Why would this be? It could, of course, indicate a common toxin or other agent in the home environment. But it's also possible that the strong bond between some pets and people can create a kind of sympathetic resonance, akin to "catching" a yawn or the urge to scratch from someone nearby.
Many experiments and anecdotes attest to a mysterious, seemingly extrasensory connection between animals and people. So it is not surprising that the same health problem is often shared between a person and an animal. If you see this happening with you and your animal, it's worth contemplating, perhaps even exploring any underlying psychological beliefs and emotions that may accompany your own condition. That is often helpful in human health and could radiate out to help heal your animals as well.
There is much we still need to learn. Yet, as many now understand, the intention to be well, along with faith in the healing capacity of nature, life, the universe, God—however you conceive of that—are central to all healing.
Based on excerpts from Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Richard H Pitcairn, with the permission of Rodale Press. Copyright © 2005.