January 20, 2014
What Is Your Dog Thinking?
When a dog sits in front of you, her golden brown eyes focused on your face, and then she tilts her head, while wrinkling her brow every so slightly, you’re likely to interpret the look as a question. When she snuggles into your lap and sighs, it is natural to think that she loves you and is content. Are we simply projecting our own feelings onto our pets or are they sharing and communicating their feelings of joy, perplexity, and love with us?
Every dog lover has experienced that closeness and those intelligent, questioning looks. What does she want? Food? A pet? To play? Is she simply wondering what you’re thinking? After all, you’re wondering what she’s thinking.
When Gregory Berns began questioning what Callie, his adopted two-year-old Feist, was thinking and feeling, he was in the unique position to do more than simply wonder. As director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy he used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study brain activity in human subjects. Why not use the same technology to study canine brains?
Of course there were reasons to doubt the possibility of studying dogs with the fMRI technology. The machines are noisy and the subject being scanned must remain perfectly still while the images are being taken. The experiments that he had in mind would require the dog to be unrestrained and fully alert, not sedated.
These obstacles were overcome through training. Using only positive training methods, the dogs learned enter the scanner chamber willingly. They were taught to wear ear protectors and to lie perfectly still with their heads on a chin rest while the scans of their brain activity were being made.
While in the chamber the trainer used hand signals to indicate that the dog would or would not receive a treat, which stimulated brain activity that was recorded as images by the MRI. Brain activity was also stimulated in other ways such as by smells of familiar and unfamiliar people.
The researchers are using these scans to determine which areas of the dogs brain respond to the various stimuli. They hope to learn about the range of emotions that dogs experience and how much language they actually understand.
Though the study continues, Berns has shared some of his fascinating initial findings in his new book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. His findings will come as no surprise to anyone who has loved and been loved by their faithful canine friend.
As for Gregory Berns, he says, “The idea behind the book is essentially my deep-seated desire to know what my dogs are thinking, and whether they love us for something more than food,” He continues, “I think the answer is definitely, yes. They love us for things far beyond food, basically the same things that humans love us for. Things like social comfort and social bonds.”
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