More than just cuddling donkeys

Brigitte Wijnen at her donkeyfarm Hans & Grietje

More than just cuddling donkeys

Mindfulness with donkeys for people suffering with burn-out issues

29-11-2023 · Science

Everyone has heard of mindfulness by now, but mindfulness with animals? Brigitte Wijnen, PhD student at UM, is doing research into the effectiveness of mindfulness for people with the beginnings of a burn-out. A hairy four-footed animal plays an important role. No not a dog, but a donkey.

She was one of the first batch of students to do Health Sciences in Maastricht and graduated in 1984. After that, Brigitte Wijnen (63) worked as a management consultant for years, both in the Netherlands and abroad. After a time, this no longer satisfied her. She wanted to “do something that had a direct effect” and so she started a care farm with daytime activities for people with a mental disability, in 2008. The only animals there were donkeys. Why donkeys? Well, she just finds them to be pleasant animals, so pleasant in fact that when she lived in Germany, she had a couple of donkeys walking around on her property, as a hobby.


In 2011, Wijnen did a mindfulness training, after which she presented a remarkable idea to her trainer: why not mindfulness with donkeys? “I saw on my care farm that people were more inclined to open up to animals. Compared to horses, donkeys are calm. They are a little slower, stand still more often.” Could that help people suffering from a burn-out? And might it be a good subject to do a PhD on? Wijnen approached UM with her idea and she even found a supervisor, professor Pim Martens. She is now going to carry out research into whether the motivation (motivation is a key word in this research: being in the mood of undertakin things, zest for living) of people with the first signs of a burn-out changes during the training. "The effect can easily be measured in these persons because their motivation is already low. And it is impossible for those suffering from a full-scale burn-out, because they cannot even get out of bed.”

Cuddle hormone

The training course consists of eight weekly meetings where participants do exercises and meditation together with the donkey. One of the exercises is the body scan, in which every part of the body is consciously ‘scanned’. “Normally, one would do this to one’s own body, but in this case it is done to the donkey. You use all your senses; you touch the animal, you listen, you look. Both parties enjoy it. “This happens because a substance is released upon touch: oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone. It is all about giving exclusive attention to a living being. Animals make sure that you remain attentive. When you stop petting, your cat notices that, right?” Having your own animal in your home is a must for participation in the research. You have to actually practice mindfulness, at home as well. “That is why we have recorded instructions for the exercises for people who have a dog or a cat.”

Wijnen is going to carry out different tests at various moments on each participant. “Before the training starts, there will be a baseline measurement. This is used to compare to the other test results.”

Why is there no control group? One who undergoes mindfulness, but without donkeys? That would be possible, she says, but that would answer a different research question. "I want to see if the motivation changes in one person.


But how can you measure that? “A substance is produced in your brain when it is rewarded, dopamine. This makes you feel good, so you want more. The motivation to carry on becomes stronger. We expect that this will also be the case for the participants.” The dopamine levels in tears are measured using soft paper strips. Brain activity is measured with a small wireless headband, an EEG (electroencephalogram) test.  “There are brainwaves that say something about your state of mind and hence about the effectiveness of your meditation. You could compare it to a kind of smartwatch, but then around your head.” Lastly, the participants will be asked to complete a questionnaire about their intrinsic motivation, “the motivation coming from themselves, without external influences, such as a telephone call from a friend.”

She expects that it will all work better if the animal is also enjoying it. How can you measure that? Tears will also be extracted from the donkeys. They will not be wearing a headband for an EEG as yet. They are maybe a bit stubborn after all? There is another reason for that: there is no portable EEG appliance for horses or donkeys available yet. And because donkeys can’t answer questions, they will not be given a questionnaire, but Wijnen will film the animals. Donkey specialists in England will subsequently analyse their behaviour.

Cherry on the cake

The research itself still has to start but there are some hurdles. As an ‘external PhD candidate’, Wijnen has to pay for everything herself. That is why she and a number of FHML students have set up a crowdfunding project. “A single headband costs €400. I need thirteen of those. And the tear analyses take place in the laboratory for which we need to buy analysis kits.” By offering workshops with the donkeys in exchange for a donation, she is hoping to collect enough money. At the moment, Wijnen is still waiting for approval from the Medical Ethics Committee; the Animal Testing Committee has already given its approval. After that, she can start looking for participants.

When she completes all this, she will have reached the age of retirement. “For most people, doing a PhD is at the beginning of their career, for me it is the cherry on the cake.”

Like to participate? Send an e-mail to [email protected]





Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: donkeys,mindfulness,wellbeing,burn-out,research,instagram

Add Response

Click here for our privacy statement.

Since January 2022, Observant only publishes comments of people whose name is known to the editors.