As a Hollywood studio chief, most notably at Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios, I have dealt with the study of the human heart most of my adult life. In part, the fate of the studios rested on that understanding. If our movies could not find their way into people’s hearts, we did not make money, and we couldn’t continue to produce movies.
On average, we tested a motion picture 10 times in order to maximize audience satisfaction before it was locked into its final form. Based on audience reaction, we changed endings, added new sequences, and swapped music. The ending was seminal. A strong finish pushed positive word-of-mouth and kept our movies in the theaters.
The endings that always scored the highest were (1) weddings and (2) births. They signified the productive continuance of the species—life, love, and a future. If we had a movie that wasn’t working and we were beyond desperate, we’d photograph and cut a marriage or the birth of a child into the last few minutes of footage and watch the word-of-mouth scores jump.
For example, while at Walt Disney Studios, we made a buddy-cop comedy with Tom Hanks and Beasley, one of the ugliest dogs ever photographed. The movie, Turner & Hooch, played well until the last few minutes.
The picture tested miserably because in the last reel, Hooch died. The word-of-mouth scores were terrible, which meant no second weekend and a flop on our hands. So we added a love interest for Hooch and reshot a new ending in which Tom playfully engages with the second-ugliest dog in the world, Hooch Jr.
Of course, the audience was sad over Hooch’s death, but it was also buoyed by the hopefulness of a new pup who could keep the comedy wheel of life spinning. The picture went on to gross $70 million at the domestic box office, which was a good number in 1989.
On a broader level, all of us can be overwhelmed by the news. We each experience that inner sense of apocalyptic species-doom. We know the threats associated with climate change and artificial intelligence. Yet after thousands of screenings, decades of research, and hundreds of walks down those unnerving red carpets, I know one thing with certainty:
Audiences are rooting for the continuation of life.
A few years ago, I left the grind of the LA movie business and moved to a farm in the country outside of Boston. It turns out that you can’t quite take the city out of the migrated country mouse. Even in the solitude, my mind still ticks to the data associated with the beating of the human heart.
As someone who has worked and managed commercial art and artists for four decades, my interests rest solidly in the intersection of art and science — or, put another way, story and data. When I relocated to the farm and opened up a Facebook account, I started to take photos of my quiet new world—of horses and dogs and children and ponds and soil and family and friends.
It appears that our bodies are hard-wired to favorably respond to certain forms of life: babies, lovers, nature, and pups.
The River that Runs Through Us
Always curious, I was moved to understand what, beyond just the weddings and births, people in the online landscape find precious.
I discovered four photo subjects that moved the meter for people: my dog, newborns, nature, and people in affectionate circumstances. They are represented in the pictures accompanying this story.
I did not realize it at the time, but that warm and fuzzy feeling that ran through me before I posted a photo was a biochemical reaction to what I was seeing. In turn, those who viewed the photo responded with the same synchronicity of feeling I experienced when I added it to my Facebook wall. We were in the same river.
We all laugh and roll our eyes at Facebook and Instagram. For many of us, it’s not life; it’s the way we want life to be. But there is always truth in patterning. The trick is to be able to pull it out.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, a book by professor of botany Robin Wall Kimmerer, opened my eyes to why all my big-city friends were positively responding to my photos of nature.
It turns out that we are biochemically attached to the scent of soil.
The fragrance of earth
The folklore we all hear about “getting back to the basics” seems to have some scientific truth. Most of us have gotten it into our heads that earth is a thing. It’s not.
According to the US Department of Agriculture:
Healthy soil is living and is a complex ecosystem with an abundance of bio-diversity. Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.
Indeed, the actual fragrance of healthy soil (i.e., one that isn’t poisoned by ammonia, etc), according to Kimmerer’s research, has a physiological effect on humans. That warm and fuzzy feeling that gardeners experience and walkers of nature know is brought on by the release of oxytocin, also known colloquially as the “love hormone,” into the bloodstream.
We can look a little differently at kids playing in the mud or looking for bugs in the grass. They are experiencing pleasure just by having their noses close to fresh humus.
Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and occurs naturally in the body. It can act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the body and brain. A wide range of recent studies have highlighted its potential to promote empathy, trust, and social bonding.
Remarkably, oxytocin also suppresses the amygdala, which processes fear, helping to generate an immediate feeling of intimacy and confidence. This hormone and neurotransmitter is released to both parties during lovemaking as well as in the act of breastfeeding. Notably, both of these acts are at the very top of the to-do list after weddings and births.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that my photos of nature also seemed to resonate among my Facebook friends, tapping into deep feelings of longing.
That brings me to another fascinating source of a natural oxytocin release: dogs.
Everywhere I go with my corgi, Arthur, people ask to pet him. That’s not so easy, as Arthur is low to the ground. Nonetheless, people kneel and stretch to get to him. I am always amazed at the joy it brings to them—particularly when they look into his eyes.
Current research provides some intriguing science behind what we already know is true: dogs and humans share a special bond.
When humans merely look into their dog’s eyes, that eye contact releases a flood of oxytocin. Other studies show that for dogs, oxytocin is released when a human smiles at them. These triggers might be a window into what scientists now describe as the co-evolution between humans and dogs.
Few people realize that dogs are a relatively new addition to our planet. The most recent archaeological findings pinpoint the appearance of the first dog as only 30,000 years ago. All dogs come from the genomes of the grey wolf. Early evolutionary theorists, including Darwin, believed that jackals, hyenas, and foxes had something to do with the evolution of dogs, but they were wrong.
As best we can surmise, our hunter-gatherer ancestors brought orphaned wolf cubs into their camps and began to raise them. In smaller and calmer homes, these wolf-cubs began to develop what Charles Darwin called sports, small genetic mutations that reflected their new living conditions. These mutations made them smaller, leaner, and often less furry. Eventually new breeds emerged.
The history of the dog reveals a very big theme. The hunter-gatherers feared the wolf. But, in the co-evolution of the dog,
We transformed what we feared into life that we loved
Tests on wolves have shown that these animals’ brains release no oxytocin in response to either the gaze or the smile of a human. The developing theory is that the interspecies oxytocin loop between dogs and humans developed over time. It took time for humans to breed, train, and discipline dogs to become useful companions — herding, pointing, and retrieving.
The science bears out my experience: it feels good to look at a dog. It seems that it’s pleasurable for the dog too. And those feel-good moments seem to happen when I, or others, see my Facebook posts as well.
We have all experienced joy when being close to a newborn. Humans experience some level of chemical attachment to an infant just by being near its fragrance.
When infants are born, they are already familiar with the smell of their mother’s amniotic fluid. This odor imprint helps newborns find their mother’s nipple, which has a similar but slightly different odor than the fluid. The mutual production of oxytocin aids in the survival of both mother and child.
New studies from Emory University indicate that paternal bonding also occurs. “Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children,” says James Rilling, an anthropologist with Emory University and director of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience.
But you don’t have to be a baby’s parent to feel heightened senses of care and bonding when you smell a baby’s aroma. We are wired to be drawn to babies visually too. The science of cuteness has even been applied to product development, using “baby schema”—the physical features of babies such as large faces, round heads, and big eyes—to create attention-grabbing products.
February is the month of love. Valentine’s Day settles in the absolute middle of it. There’s nothing like that feeling of romantic love, when oxytocin is joined by a whole cocktail of ingredients, including estrogen, testosterone, and the wings of imagination.
It seems, however, that Cupid’s arrow is tinged with more than love’s first blush: it also bears oxytocin.
This hormone can even help wounded lovers make a fresh start. Remember that oxytocin suppresses the amygdala, which processes fear. When we are afraid to start over and can’t seem to get rid of our old baggage, oxytocin helps wipe the psychic slate clean, allowing Eros to once again scrawl poetry across your chalkboard.
Photos can help us recall, and perhaps even relive, that delicious feeling of being in love ourselves. Like any audience, even on Facebook we are rooting for the continuation of life.
Hopefully, you’ve realized by now that this article really isn’t about how to get attention on Facebook … though you could use it for that.
The more important insight I’m offering here is that recognizing what attracts our attention can help us realign our own lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to sign up for Tinder or adopt a baby or a dog. The simple nearness of these extraordinary life forces can have a profound impact on your sense of well-being.
How you access those forces may vary. It might be by reaching out to a friend or family member who has a newborn in their lives or someone who needs your affection, even if it isn’t romantic. Or by leaving behind the colossal corridors of 5th Avenue and entering the natural valley of Central Park.
These natural sources of oxytocin can open up the window for a renewed sense of trust and new associations. They can even make us willing to join new communities. Developing studies at Duke University found that oxytocin made study participants more apt to agree with the statement “We are all connected.”
Perhaps we all need to bend our knees and pet a dog . . . or open our arms to the embrace of a newborn. Perhaps there is a new truth at that intersection of data and story, of science and poetry, of photos and Facebook: what is precious is essential.
Happy Valentine’s Day!