Aww or Eek? The Brain Reacts to Pictures of Animals

Two baby American Alligators (Chris Johns)


Animals have long played an important role for humans–we have hunted them, been hunted by them, domesticated them, and taken them into our homes as companions. And, a new study suggests, animals also have a special place in our heads. Researchers at Caltech monitored brain activity of 41 neurosurgical patients and found that the amygdala, a section of the brain associated with emotion, reacts instantly when shown photos of animals. However, there was no similar reaction when the patients looked at images of landmarks, objects, or other people.  The researchers note that this special reaction in our brains “may reflect the importance that animals held throughout our evolutionary past” as both predators and prey.

In an interview with NPR, Christof Koch–the lead author of the study–noted that one patient even had a “Peter Rabbit cell” in the brain that reacted to particularly cute animal images.

For all the latest science news, check out National Geographic Library’s twice-weekly news rundown, EarthCurrent.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Since 2005, Michael has been a librarian at National Geographic.