14 Jul 2018

Gregory Berns MRI research reveals What it's like to be a Dog

From Saturday Morning, 10:09 am on 14 July 2018

Neuroeconomics researcher Gregory Berns’ latest book What It's Like to be a Dog explores his findings from his canine MRI research.

Black and white dog called Sprockett.

Modern dogs are descended from grey wolves, and the process of domestication began about 33,000 years ago in Asia. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

He specialises in the use of brain imaging technologies to understand people’s - and now, dogs’ - motivation and decision-making. 

For the last three years, Berns has pursued his dream of using MRI technology to try and decode what dogs really think.

“We can’t ask what they’re thinking or feeling, we only have two choices: we can observe them or you can do what I’m doing which is we can go directly to the brain and try to decode it based on.”

However, there seems to be some crossover.

“When we see structures that are common to both humans and dog brains being active in these experiments, that’s where I make the conclusion - and maybe it’s a bit of a leap but I think it’s reasonable - that they’re experiencing things in ways that are very similar to the ways that we experience them. 

Berns directs the Centre for Neuropolicy and the Facility for Education & Research in Neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta in the US, and is the author of many books. 

Professor Gregory Berns

Professor Gregory Berns Photo: Gregory Berns

In the past he studied humans for several years, and says and he’s often struck by how similar dogs are to people. 

“The reality is that dogs are as different from each other as people are from each other, we see this in their brains. 

He talks about one study with 50 service dogs - all golden retrievers and labrador retrievers. 

“After a while they start looking like clones of each other, and yet you can see when you look at their brains there are differences. 

“We were able to eventually predict which ones could be successful in their jobs and those that weren’t and we could link it to activation in a certain circuit in their brain which is what we call arousal which is getting excited, which is not a good attribute in a service dog. 

“It’s clear that some of them were not as happy about [being in the MRI machine] as others - or some are just maybe too excited about it and it’s just distracting for them … you couldn’t tell by their behaviour but it was there in their brains.

“They’re individuals, and what’s fascinating to me is ‘okay, how can we relate the differences in brain activity actually to dogs’ personality and what makes them them. 

He says there's physical differences to take into account. 

“For an average sized dog their brain is about the size of a lemon ... with dogs, as actually with most other mammals, their skull is heavily protected with muscles and their bone is thicker and they have large air sinuses and pockets that mostly assist with smelling. 

He admits that research like this is also complicated by humans’ reliance on language. 

“Human speech and human language is so complex … we humans talk constantly, we’re constantly jabbering, frequently without saying very much in terms of content.

“The dogs around us are able to pick out a few salient words, they’ll recognise their name, the’ll probably know some commands, maybe the names of a few things but probably not as many as we think. That’s probably about it, they just don’t have the brain structures necessary for language, and the fact that they don’t speak themselves is related to that. 

“What always strikes me is when you get past that, there’s a core set of circuits in really all mammalian brains that we have in common and a lot of us think that’s mostly to do with basic emotions and feelings. He says one of the early experiments was found that dogs have a part of their brain that was specialised in recognising and responding to faces. 

“Humans do, other primates do and that kind of speaks to the importance of faces to us, 

“This is the kind of evidence that proves that not only do dogs care about these things but we can tie it back to similar mechanisms in our brains. 

Interestingly, one study found dogs' excitement at receiving praise was about the same as for getting food. 

A new study has found that reggae and soft rock, are the music genres that dogs prefer.

Photo: 123RF

He says he chose dogs because they were the first animal to live with humans. 

“It probably predates agriculture, meaning that dogs were probably with humans before humans started living in communities. 

“It’s not just because I’m a dog person … there’s a deep bond between humans and dogs, that not only tells us about dogs but also in some ways tells us about humans and how we evolved together. 

He agrees there are moral lessons too. 

“Go back 300 years and animals were not considered to be thinking creatures at all, Descartes thought that they were just reflexes and had no soul and no thought whatsoever. 

“Certainly they can suffer … so the work that I’m doing is just the next logical step ... showing that hey, they’re fairly similar to us as well.” 

He says in many ways a lot of the work proves that dogs and other animals have emotions and feelings. 

“The way I view it is not that we’re trying to prove or disprove these notions, it’s that we’re trying understand why they are that way.

“What is it about the dog’s brain that makes them so lovable and just such great creatures and what are they really getting out of the relationship with humans?” 

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