Opinionista Timothy Maurice Webster 10 April 2018

The Neuroscience of my Pomeranian’s race effect

Since the 18th century, a number of royals have owned Pomeranians, a dog which descended from the German Spitz breed, affectionately known as a Pom. Queen Victoria owned a really small Pom and with her royal influence she created an international love affair with the smallest variety. After half a year of carrying my very own Pom, named Cooper, into malls, restaurants and a variety of social spaces, including the occasional braai, this royal pet has elevated my understanding of the application of brain chemicals to race relations.

Over the past two years I’ve been studying Applied Neuroscience and Neuroscience for Leadership courses in Boston at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I’m basically obsessed with the brain’s role in how we see and navigate the world, especially consumer and leadership behaviour. When starting this journey, if you told me I would be running around with a Pomeranian either clutched under my arms or literally discovering new 5km routes with one, I would have told you there must be a neurological explanation for your mental waywardness. Turns out your brain is just fine and miracles are still happening.

Before unpacking what my Pomeranian has taught me about the brain and race, allow me to explain how a non-pet-loving person like me ended up obsessed with Cooper. For the previous three years, my partner kept asking for a dog and, truthfully, wilful blindness kept the request from lodging. Pets simply didn’t factor on my radar. It’s not that I was anti-pet, it was more a case of being pro-freedom. Not being a parent and a pet owner has allowed me to galavant in my career, at will. At least this is the story I sold myself.

So, one day I came home from domestic travels and before turning the house key, I heard a dog. Upon opening the door, my partner, her friend and the puppy were staring at me with a look that translated to – welcome to your new life. I didn’t say a word and despite being exhausted, mustered enough strength to construct a menacing face, aiming at all three, which basically let them know they would all regret it. They giggled – the puppy barked – I took a shower and went to bed.

The first week of completely ignoring Cooper’s playful advances only served to elevate his eagerness. At 3am on Saturday of the second week, he became sick. We rushed him to a 24-hour animal hospital in Bryanston, which I had no idea existed even though I’ve driven past it almost daily for two-and-a-half years.

The white veterinarian and 100% white staff all seemed distraught by the sight of the struggling stranger. After a deworming process in the third week, my partner unfortunately had to travel for three days. Her travel left me with the responsibilities of nursing this pint-sized creature, one on one. For 72 hours his fight for survival melted my heart.

In the fourth week, my partner was forced to travel again and after returning, she sat me down and said she’s thinking of selling Cooper because her schedule had changed and she wouldn’t be able to offer the care he deserved. My reply shook her.

Over my dead body. There is no way you will sell him, I’ll take full ownership.”

As Cooper’s new owner I’ve spent five months burying myself in understanding dog psychology but, more important, for the purpose of this article, being gobsmacked at how all races have responded to him alone as well as the two of us together.

You need not be a neuroscientist to know that any small animal – including baby Homo sapiens – bring out the most powerful bonding response, even in the average cold soul. The next time a mother and her newborn enter a lift, watch every brain and heart warm in their direction. Evolutionary psychologists will tell you it’s the baby’s vulnerability triggering protective bonding chemicals such as Oxytocin to flow, forcing our collective attention spans to redirect towards the baby’s vulnerability.

Reductionally” speaking, what you thought were beautiful cheeks and gorgeous eyes are basically a helpless child wired to use their features to signal you into a primitive nurturing posture just in case this new member of the tribe needs you.

The first time I witnessed Cooper’s biological ability to trigger a response was outside a neighborhood restaurant. As a novice to pet etiquette, I began our relationship taking him everywhere – unaware that no matter how tiny he is, many policies won’t allow him in. While the manager thought Cooper was lovely, the rules required him to sit us outside, in a corner, next to the mall’s entrance. This was where the social research began.

Within 45 minutes, conversations ensued with three white couples, two single Afrikaans women and I was invited to the homes of two of them. It’s a stereotype that white people love dogs and blacks are scared of them and while Cooper has taught me that much of this is true, this is far from the point of this piece.

Over the following few days I noticed a pattern that would thrust me into merging my understanding of neuroscience and racial experiences. As an American with African heritage, I grew up with a very diverse social circle – however, each race had a distinct life force that each relationship revolved around. There was this silent force everyone understood which guided and guarded the structure of engagement. Whether it was the Latina community, Native Americans or whites, you were always aware of the boundaries, no matter how close you became. I’ve experienced the same in South Africa.

Cooper collapsed these walls.

One morning just after 6am, Cooper and I returned from a run and bumped into a neighbour (lets call her Lourette, not her name). Lourette saw my puppy for the first time, stopped her car, jumped out and ran to him and began to kiss him. Lourette has never even greeted me, so we introduced ourselves – and she invited me over for drinks the same evening.

The Friday of that same week, while taking Cooper for a walk, another white couple, let’s call them Wikus and Lorraine, stopped us, played with him and after five to seven minutes we were exchanging numbers. This went on for days before it hit me – what if the things we love transfer bonding chemicals in people that helps override racial bias. Conversely, what if not loving the same things triggers stress chemicals such as cortisol, which become a barrier to bonding.

In her book Neuroscience for Leadership, Neuroscientist Dr Tara unpacks a concept called Cortisol Contagion. Simply put, if a person is stressed out and suppressing high levels of cortisol, they can transmit the chemicals into the physiology of those around them. But the influence of stress extends beyond people. When researchers measured cortisol levels of participants who were exposed to or wore products such as T-shirts bearing the slogans of opposition political parties, their stress levels increased. A conflict in the things we value have a real neurological impact on our bodies and minds. Of course, the opposite occurs when mood enhancing chemicals such as serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin are flowing due to adorable pets, babies and photographs.

I’ve extended my social experiment beyond Cooper into office environments. I hypothesised that if I could discover what people loved, find something about it that I love and demonstrate its passionate link between myself and another, I just may trigger the type of chemicals that produce home invites. Although his real name is not Dave, he looks like a Dave. Dave is a manager with a client and I discovered he loves birds. Not just loves birds, he is obsessed with them. I’ve been told his holidays are all bird-watching related.

Once I had Googled everything I could about the birds he was most intrigued with and discovering my own fascination with them and then sharing links I thought he may find interesting, sure enough, his eyes lit up. Crisanne, an associate at a university where I often do visiting lectures, loves pottery. Following the same formula, Crisanne, Rianette and several more all responded with the same Cooper-styled affection.

This led me to a simple question. How much do we love what others love and, in a rainbow nation, how important is it to have shared love interests? I’m well aware scientists would scoff at my empirically clumsy and feel-good social study, but perhaps it’s time we investigate this effect further.

Beyond material things, such as clothes and consumer goods – things which require blood, sweat and emotion – which percentage of these do we share? Cooper has inspired me to investigate what I now term “love resources”. Are we exposed to each other’s love resources enough to know how to connect with each other? Is it possible we are asking people to override racial bias and bond when we simply don’t have enough resources to connect?

No, we shouldn’t all love all the same things. Diversity is important, but if we are to thrive alongside each other, it just might be helpful to start by discovering what and why each other’s hearts are triggered. Thank you Cooper. DM

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