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Dogs Are Aces at Figuring Out Humans

The Caninologist

Canine science and technology have been making some major strides lately, and we’re not just talking about the advent of 3-D dog-face T-shirts.

Faces do matter, though, and especially for dogs.

Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of the 2013 best-seller How Dogs Love Us, explains why in his new book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog, detailing five years of research into the inner workings of dog brains.

The research began with the realization that noninvasive fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging—might be a tool to study canine cognition without any need to drug or harm the animals. The technology measures oxygenated blood flow to reveal activity of nerve cells down to sub-millimeter accuracy.

Pioneered in the early 1990s, MRI technology has produced a revolution in human neuroscience by allowing researchers to map particular brain functions to specific regions and structures in healthy, living people.

Naturally enough, dogs turned out to be ideal subjects, too, once they were trained to hold still for a few seconds with their heads positioned inside the MRI machines. (Berns, a dog lover, said he makes a point to never use sedation or restraints, even if it takes weeks to train some four-legged study subjects.)

Scientists have been documenting for a long time the remarkable social and perceptual skills of domestic dogs, which in some respects outperform chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives. Having evolved with humans longer than any other species, the dog has a brain finely tuned to figuring out people.

Now, fMRI is yielding fresh insights into the brain apparatus that support all that canine perception.

In an online summary of his newest work and a recent Q&A in The New York Times, Berns described how he was able to scan about 90 dogs since 2012, when he first trained his own terrier to climb into a simulated fMRI machine Berns made in his basement.

The fMRI scans reveal that dogs, just like humans, have distinct brain areas dedicated to processing faces. So if your dog seems to have an uncanny sense of your mood swings, it might have something to do with the peculiarities of the canine temporal cortex. That’s the brain region that gets most active when a dog is trying to figure out what you mean, judging from the expression on your face, if not the words coming out of your mouth. It’s built to get it right.

No doubt that’s because a dog’s brain knows very well where its meal ticket comes from, favoring human praise even more than food in some cases.

“If you take language out of the picture,” Berns said in the Emory University summary, “what we’re finding is that we see a lot of similarities between dogs and humans. In one study, for instance, we used fMRI to measure the relative value of food versus praise to the dogs and found that almost all the dogs’ brains responded to praise as much, and sometimes more, than to food. We ourselves know how it feels when someone praises us; there’s a positive feeling associated with it. That’s perhaps similar to what dogs are feeling.”

 

Perhaps. Of course, if you really want to know what it’s like to be a dog, it may be necessary to be a dog.

No one managed to jump into the skin, or exoskeleton, of animals with greater literary power than Franz Kafka, whose famous 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis, concerns a traveling salesman who awakens one morning after some “uneasy dreams” to discover he’s become a giant insect.

Kafka’s first-person account of a knowledge-seeking canine, written in 1922, is not so famous, but maybe should be.

It’s just been reissued as the title story in a new collection of English translations of Kafka stories, Investigations of a Dog: And Other Creatures, by poet Michael Hofmann.

This is as close as you might get to scientific inquiry as imagined from a dog’s perspective—at least until we find better ways to communicate than merely reading one another’s eyebrow twitches.

Both we and they are a curious species.

“I am not a hair’s breadth outside the doggish norm,” Kafka’s main character assures us. “Every dog has, as I do, the urge to question.”

 

Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter and journalism instructor who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe.

Main article photo by: Rohappy/iStock