Aysha Akhtar on Our Symphony With Animals
by Julie Peterson
As a neurologist, Dr. Aysha Akhtar wanted to acknowledge that medicine has largely overlooked our relationships with animals and their impact on our health. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and bullying, she gained strength and courage to change her situation after forming a deep bond with an abused dog. She found there were more stories like hers that explain how the health and happiness of humans and animals are interlaced.
After traveling to interview people whose lives have been profoundly influenced by animals, Akhtar used her experiences and those of others to demonstrate the science behind the intricate and mutually beneficial associations between humans and animals. The result is her book, Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies. After time spent with homeless people, a former mobster, a Marine veteran, a serial killer, animal sanctuary workers and farmers, she relates what happens when people forge (or break) bonds with animals, and how the love we give them comes full circle back to us.
How do you explain that an untrained animal, like Sylvester, the abused dog you bonded with, can help a person heal and recover?
It’s the fact that the animal is not a human being. Animals help diffuse the human-generated pressure in our lives. If you treat an animal with kindness, that is the only thing that the animal will judge you by. Animals don’t care about your past, your money, your mistakes in life—they have no preconceived notions about you. Animals have a purity that helps us be our true selves without worrying about being judged.
What is the most memorable moment of your journey to discover more stories like your own?
It was a beautiful, warm, summer evening, and I was just sitting at an animal sanctuary with a pig named Ivy. She was such a sweet girl and such an emotional being, she reminded me of Sylvester. While Ivy was sleeping, I was listening to the sounds around me—ducks, chickens, cows, horses, dogs and nature. The sun was setting. I became immersed in the moment and felt a profound sense of connectedness. All the sounds came together for me like a Mozart symphony. I had never felt that kind of peace. It was beautiful.
What is the science behind the neurological and biological phenomena you describe in this interaction between humans and animals?
First, studies are emerging that suggest that the way we feel empathy toward each other is not very different from the way we feel empathy toward other animals. It appears that we may feel stronger empathy toward other animals because, like children, we see them as vulnerable.
Second, medical studies show that just being with animals provides measurable physiological changes within us, showing a boost to our well-being. For example, just being with a dog for five to 10 minutes can decrease blood pressure and stress hormones, and provide a long-term boost to cardiovascular health. It also leads to increases in positive neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin—the chemicals that make us feel happy.
What’s even more interesting, studies suggest that the same positive effects are also happening in the animal.
How did you come to believe that compassion for animals is the next step in the moral evolution of humans?
Animals are more on the radar of the current younger generation than they used to be. This means that empathy for animals is growing with each generation. Part of the reason is that there is a moral consciousness growing within our species. We are waking up to the fact that how we treat each other needs to be more ethical, and that includes animals.
We’re witnessing that the destruction of other species is causing the unraveling of ecosystems, and that is causing increases in things like mosquito-borne diseases. In other words, our disruption of other species is coming back to hurt us. Slowly, our collective consciousness is waking up to recognize that how we treat nonhumans affects us, as well.
If readers could learn just one thing from Symphony, what would you like it to be?
Go forward in life feeling a sense of empowerment and hope, recognizing that our well-being is very much tied in with the well-being of other animals.
Julie Peterson lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband, dogs and chickens, and has contributed to Natural Awakenings for more than a decade. Contact her at JuliePeterson2222@gmail.com.