• Robb G. Best

The Furry Robot Factor

Image source: Gurion University of the Negevl.

As many pet owners know, in hard times, it can be very helpful to have a furry little friend around. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, there has been an unprecedented surge in pet adoptions around the world. Research demonstrates that keeping an animal around (especially a dog) lowers psychological arousal and stress, and creates physiological changes that actually make us feel better.

That said, not everyone can simply go out and get a collie. Many apartment buildings don't allow for animals. Some people have allergies, some have had bad pet experiences, and some are just not equipped for pet ownership.

Enter PARO. This plush mechanical creature, modeled after a baby seal, is covered in soft fur. It makes seal-like sounds, and if you touch it or speak to it, PARO is programmed to respond by moving its head and flippers. It was designed as a kind of robot therapy animal for people with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Even a patient with severe dementia would be unable to unwittingly harm PARO, while PARO could still yield some of the psychological benefits of a pet.

But what about people without dementia? A new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) found that a single one-hour session with PARO reduced pain and oxytocin levels, and increased happiness. Touching PARO led to greater pain decreases than simply being in the same room. It seems there is something innate in most humans that rewards touch.

To those of you following along with brain science, you might be surprised to lean that those who interacted with PARO experienced lower levels of oxytocin than the control group, who did not meet PARO. Oxytocin is, after all, known as the "love hormone" and is found in elevated levels among romantic partners or parents playing with young children. If PARO allows people to relax and enjoy themselves more, shouldn't their oxytocin levels be higher? Interestingly, recent studies have suggested that outside of close relationships, the body producing oxytocin is an indication of stress. Thus, in this case, a lower amount of oxytocin could speak to increased relaxation.

“These findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time," said study leader Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek, "when social distancing is a crucial factor in public health."

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