Humans and animals have been evolving together through the domestication process for ten thousand years which involved sensory, tactile and social interactions that stimulated the release of oxytocin; a hormone that changed our chemistry that “yielded a relaxation that made our modern civilization possible” (Olmert, 2009, p. 180). It is only within the last one hundred years that humans have made a move away from animals, Meg Daley Olmert, the author of Made for Each Other (2009), explains, we are the first society to walk away en masse from animals with the abrupt shift from farm to factory. What impact has this move had on society? Lott and Hart poised this inquiry in 1977, “For centuries we have studied the animals who have come to share our lives. We have asked how much and in what ways we have been their creators. Perhaps we should also ask to what extent they have been ours” (p. 184). Olmert (2009) ponders this inquiry and explores the reciprocal relationship between humans and animals that shaped the biology of the human-animal bond on the evolutionary path that has lead to a modern technology dominated society where it is hypothesized, children are experiencing social, emotional and behavioural adverse effects from living in a nature deficit environment. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is potentially one of the ways child experiencing these adverse effects.
Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, formulated the Biophilia hypothesis stating, humans have an “innate tendency to focus upon life and other lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally” (as cited in Olmert, 2009, p. 12). He believed humans’ “million of years of total submersion in nature left its mark not only on brain function but on our DNA” (Olmert, 2009, p. 12) that makes humans “genetically predisposed to be fascinated by the living world around us and to feel a strong attachment to it” (p. 12). Additionally, Olmert (2009) explained a meditative state referred to as a biophilia mind/body moment occurs during an experience of attraction, that Wilson called the “hunter’s trance” which involved an “intensified concentration in which heart, breath, and mind are quieted” (p. 13). As modern members of the human species, Gullone (2000) further explains Wilson’s hypothesis stating, we are a “product of this evolutionary process - a brain attuned to extracting, processing, and evaluating information from the natural world” (p. 295). Coincidentally, according to Olmert (2009), at the time when Wilson was developing the biophilia hypothesis, other researchers were discovering the hormone called oxytocin and its powerful effect that urges social connection.
Oxytocin is a hormone that has widespread effects on human social characteristics and stimulates emotional bonding. According to Netherton and Schatte (2011) the effects include attachment, trust and social processing, along with decreased anxiety, stress and aggression. Oxytocin helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the fight-flight-freeze stress response, reducing the secretion of cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline (Chandler, 2012). Olmert (2009) explains, oxytocin promotes social interaction by calming the paranoid tendencies of the amygdala through the stimulated release of the GABA neurotransmitter which is the body’s natural tranquilizer while also improving the amygdala’s ability to interpret facial expressions, body postures and vocal tones as friendly rather than perceiving new faces, places or ideas as threatening. Chandler (2012) states, “Oxytocin exposure can increase the pain threshold, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, increase vagal tone, decrease inflammation, increase wound healing, facilitate learning, and have anxiolytic-like effects (anti-anxiety)” (p. 9). Through welcomed touch, pressure-sensitive nerves in the skin signals the release of oxytocin which “produces a rewarding sense of relaxation and satiety” (Olmert, 2009, p.50). Physical touch between human and animals is one of the ways to stimulate the release of oxytocin and according to Fine (2010), touching, stroking and holding animals has been shown to impact a person’s neuro-chemistry by reducing cortisol levels (stress hormones) and stimulating the release of oxytocin and the feel-good chemicals, beta endorphins and dopamine. Furthermore, Olmert (2009) reports, friendly interactions with animals “almost doubles our flow of oxytocin. We humans simply can’t reach this oxytocin high by ourselves or with the best intentions of others” (p.213), and “the mere exposure to animals can inspire “bursts of social competence” in even the most withdrawn and distracted humans” (p.190). In modern society, humans are moving away from animals and nature and are shifting towards technology and urban living. What has this done to the oxytocin levels that humans have evolved with and how is this impacting society?
Nature Deficit Disorder
The concept nature deficit disorder was introduced by Richard Louv in 2005 to describe the societal trend in how children in today’s world, are being “raised with little access to the natural world and the resulting negative effect on their cognitive, emotional and physical well-being” (Sackett, 2010, p. 135). Nature deficit disorder is not a medical condition but rather it is a way to describe society’s lack of a relationship to the environment. Furthermore, it is a way to understand how this disconnect can hurt our children, our families, our communities, and our environment. “Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses” (Louv, 2008, p. 36).
The Rationale for Working with Farm Therapy Animals
Chimo Animal Assisted Therapy (2015) website explains there is no best animal for use in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) because different species bring different strengths, it is up the therapist’s use of their skills to identify and incorporate appropriate therapy animals into a treatment session; stating “the truth is that many types of animals can be used in AAT, and a well-qualified therapist will be able to direct the session, while encompassing the animal’s behaviour, to best benefit the client” (para. 2). Chandler (2012) states “any farm animal is appropriate for therapy as long as it is healthy and not aggressive” (p. 72).
Nature can be healing for people, offering many emotional, mental, physical, social and spiritual benefits. According to Davis and Atkins (2004),“Recent studies have suggested that spending even small amounts of time in a natural environment can improve an individual’s attention span, mental clarity, and physical and emotional well-being” (p.214). For some, a day out at the farm can provide this healing connection. After hundreds of years of farming, humans are now missing their connection to the farm and seeking to restore it. Olmert (2009) states, there is still a part within humans, that wants to be back on the farm and is evident in the “farm life” experience being commodified where farms are opened to the public as a theme parks.
How can the children who are experiencing the negative cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences of this lack of opportunity to connect with nature, be helped now? According to Olmert (2009) the human connection to our agricultural attraction is so strong that educators in Europe and the United States are attempting to rebalance the culture of childhood by “putting a little of the farm back into every kid’s life” by encouraging school planners to develop natural habitats for recreation and educational use in every school (p. 224). AAT, working with specially socialized and trained farm animals, offered in the school or farm environment could be a creative way to meet this need to provide children with access to therapeutic farm experiences.
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