We identify with panto pigs because the wiring that connects our limbs to our spines is so similar

Forget Strictly, this is the season of dancing animals. All things furry and animated – from panto horses to balletic hippos and pirouetting mice – come out at Christmas time. Children are captivated – and we are, too. This is down to more than cultural tradition. It’s also biological. We identify with animal movement because the wiring that connects our limbs to our spines is so similar. Even though we walk on two legs and animals on four, our basic movements are controlled by very similar circuits.

We use our body control systems to help us see and understand theirs. For example, the areas of our brain that respond to seeing a human biting something are also sensitive to watching a monkey or a dog biting. And this resonance is part of the way we appreciate the emotions of other species. It helps us to anthropomorphise, whether we want to or not. We automatically identify and empathise with a frightened rabbit whether it’s on a country walk or a theatre stage. So it’s no wonder we are fascinated by animal motion, and so drawn to festive performances like Peter and the Wolf. Even if we pretend it’s the kids that make us go.

Photo credit: Hamming it up: when we see animals move we anthropomorphise. Photograph: PA

This article was first published on the Guardian website as part of the A neuroscientist explains series.