While studying, I came across a particular revelation that I never thought about until I picked up my book on Canadian legal ethics and professional responsibility. After only 16 pages into my text, I was ridiculously distracted, bored, and maybe even a tad frustrated that I had to undergo this type of study in order to finish the final steps to become a lawyer. In the quest for academia so I can step into the world of professionalism and regulation, I was becoming impatient with the amount of reading and this confused me.
I was never always like this.
When I returned to Canada in 2015 for Christmas, I was sleeping in our living room because my mom, in her great business wisdom, had decided to rent out my room to a Chinese exchange student. I quickly realized that I was surrounded by the various books and texts that I had compiled together through my years of study and it occurred to me that once upon a time, I enjoyed reading the mundane and difficult concepts that can only come from a critical academic text. I wondered what changed after all of these years.
“In the quest for academia so I can step into the world of professionalism and regulation, I was becoming impatient with the amount of reading and this confused me.”
In a fit of procrastin’asian’, I started scanning back through Facebook and old pictures to ponder this reality. After a bit of reflection, I think I have come up with the answer. The result has made me shed a few tears admittedly.
Introducing My Best Study Buddy Ever
Once upon a time, my life was changed in grade 3 when parents finally decided that we could have a dog. We visited a family friend whose chihuahua had puppies and mom told me that I could ‘choose’ one to bring home. Initially, I wanted a white one. However, being a Filipino mom, “choice” by definition meant that I could have any dog I wanted as long as she was okay with it. She persuaded me to pick a small black one who was originally named Buster (I changed the name to Sparky, but the original owner’s kids were so tripped out that I kept Buster eventually. Jerks. hahahahaha.)
Needless to say, in the years that followed, Buster and I were inseparable…until 2010 and when he finally passed away after an amazing 17 years of life together as best friends. This picture reminded me of how much time I actually spent with my dog. I realized that during my academic years, there was one constant hobby I developed that I have stopped doing since 2010. I used to read to Buster.
My dog had this habit of following me around everywhere, including when I was studying in my room. With the door closed, I would sit in bed under the covers and read. Buster would then bury himself underneath by my feet and lie down with his head on my ankle. The only times that he would go come out is when he had to use the bathroom, and occasionally when he started feeling so warm that he needed to cool down.
During those times, I read to my dog. Not only that, I also tried to explain to him everything about the stuff I was reading. I would give him my opinion on the material, and also try to contrast what I learned in a simple way so my dog could ‘understand.’
Of course, he probably never did. But I loved the look he gave with the unblinking eye contact and his ears all perked up that made me feel he was saying to me, “That is SO INTERESTING! You are the smartest person I have ever met and I want you to tell me more!”
The Influential Psychology of Pets & Performance
Of course, this post would not be an influential psychology post unless I wrote a bit about the cognitive insights behind this simple pastime. I think it is pretty common knowledge that owning a pet may have significant psychological and physical benefits. Of course, the majority of us have been convinced of this through anecdotal evidence. However, scientific study has also started to confirm this hypothesis.
So why does owning a pet make you study harder? Well, generally speaking it doesn’t. You won’t become smarter or more focused simply by owning a pet. Personally, I think we can summarize and understand this concept by discussing hormones and standard cognitive conditioning:
Serotonin is a hormone neurotransmitter chemical that is produced by the body to relay messages in the brain from one area to another. For the purpose of this article, it often influences brain cells associated with mood, memory and learning, and some social behavior. Serotonin is important in terms of reducing the amount of stress on your body and for calmness and emotional well-being.
Animals tend to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain and thus, reduce stress. If you don’t believe me, try playing with a puppy for a couple of minutes and then tell me how you feel. In contrast, I get the same feeling when I read to my dog. There is just something very relaxing about being with my pet and having him listen to everything I have to say with that unconditional love.
Interacting with a pet also reduces the amount of cortisol, which is often associated with stress and interference with memory and learning. Cortisol is a product of the “fight or flight” mechanism that allows your body to take action and protect itself from a threat. However, if no action occurs (e.g. you’re safe in a house studying for an exam) then it wreaks havoc on your body through mental anxiety.
The thing about studying is that it is an artificial stressor that we impose upon ourselves (basically when we study at the last minute.) Stress may be useful to deal with that all nighter study session but prolonged exposure to stress is unhealthy.
“You won’t become smarter or more focused simply by owning a pet. Personally, I think we can summarize how to summarize and explain this concept by discussing hormones and standard cognitive conditioning”
Finally, we have dopamine: the feel good reward chemical of the brain. This chemical is released when we make mental associations with desire such as food, sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. However, it doesn’t necessarily relate to ‘pleasure’ as many would tend to believe. Rather, dopamine also tends to be produced when we have the expectation of something pleasurable regardless of whether or not that expectation is actually fulfilled or not.
This is why dopamine is so heavily associated with addiction in drugs, alcohol and pornography. The desire to consume or experience something releases dopamine in our brain so that we associate that particular behavior with something beneficial/pleasurable. Yet, as we all know this is not always the case. Furthermore, when we abuse our bodies by overstimulating ourselves to desirable behaviors, we also tend to create dopamine imbalances in our body that affect us through vulnerability to addiction, as well as to potential depression and dependency issues.
The desire to play with a pet certainly can lead to increases in dopamine. However, when it comes to study, it doesn’t necessarily equate the joy of reading a text to being pleasurable. If you hate studying in general, then you won’t like it simply because you bring along a pet. However, I have found that communicating with my dog in general has been a very positive habit for me. I basically vent all of my frustrations through calm discussion with my dog and he just looks at me until I stop so that he can paw at me to scratch his belly. Regardless of whether I am studying or not, this is one of my most loved activities with my dog. He just always listens and even while I’m reading my book, I am still maintaining that belly scratching while he lies there in bliss. Suddenly, reading just isn’t as painful as before.
A Practical Summation
Study doesn’t have to be so painful. Even if you do not own a pet, there are certain behaviors that can be undertaken to reduce the amount of stress that becomes associated with reading ridiculous amounts of text in anticipation of that final exam.
Honestly, I am too lazy to write something that can be easily Googled so here are a few tips on what to expect with law school.
But I will round out with the following insights in terms of training your mind and body to better associate study in order to reduce stress and retain information:
- Law school is NOT just school. Go to court and watch a court procedure. I was lucky enough to be a licensed paralegal with court experience and I still believe that being in the actual moment helps me ignite that passion for law so I stay motivated.
- Always studying only alone or only with people sucks. Balance is a good contrast when it comes to studying. Personally, I cannot study alone and need to be around people but the circumstances do not always provide for this opportunity. Becoming more flexible by adopting study habits regardless of the situation will better prepare you for the stresses associated with random changes in your study schedule.
- Believe in people. I started law school thinking it was like American law school stories I picked up in Richmond and University of Virginia where people are backstabbing little bastards that rip out pages in library texts so others cannot benefit. Certainly, those people may exist. However, the vast majority of students are not adversarial but rather, just as scared as you are about school. Friendships and strategic study partners are always better than enemies.
And to my dogs…thanks for a lifetime of companionship. Writing this now has reminded me of how much having your loyalty and love in my life has made it so much easier.
I loved the look he gave with the unblinking eye contact and his ears all perked up that made me feel he was saying to me, “That is SO INTERESTING! You are the smartest person I have ever met and I want you to tell me more!”