One neuroscientist’s quest to decode the canine brain
By Leslie Phelan
How much does your dog love you back?
Food and shelter: that’s what the canine gets in return for the love and companionship they bestow upon their humans, right? Food in their dish, a cozy place to sleep, and for that they’ll spend their relatively short life spans waiting at our feet to give us the cuddles and unconditional affection we so need.
At least, that’s the trade-off as far as it’s been generally understood throughout the ages of animal husbandry. That is, until one MRI-wielding brain researcher decided to take a closer look.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns had dedicated his career at Emory U Atlanta to gaining a better understanding of human emotions and their neural responses, but had always been far more intrigued by the question of what dogs were really thinking. Convinced that there was far more to a dog’s emotional intelligence than what the status quo would suggest, he reasoned that if he could get his rescue terrier mix Callie to sit still for some scans, maybe he could bring the world closer to an answer.
Berns used his research to prove that dogs can empathize with us.
Scientists have for years been employing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which uses changes in blood flow as a proxy for brain activity in order to scan the brains of restrained monkeys and human subjects. Knowing that the brain of a stressed and restrained dog would be ineffective and a sedated dog totally useless, his team experimented with clicker training and hand signals to get the dogs’ cooperation. The Dog Project, it was called, and its results showed that the caudate nucleus, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions, reacted the same way as a human’s would when exposed to positive stimuli.
Among the stimuli used on Callie were hot dogs, treats, and Berns’ own daughter’s scent. When they were presented to Callie, sitting still like a very good girl in the MRI machine, the scanner showed the parts of her brain associated with love and pleasure lighting up like a Christmas tree.
“We hope to show that they love us for things far beyond food, basically the same things that humans love us for, like social comfort and social bonds,” Berns said in his book published last year, called How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Berns’ book details his research and findings supporting his argument that dogs really can empathize with human emotions and therefore are capable of valuing friendship just like their owners do.
Honestly, though – was there ever any real doubt about that? It’s true that since dogs can’t speak to us, their thoughts remain a mystery. But if you ask anyone who has ever fallen in love with a canine companion, they’ll tell you they know what it feels like to have that love returned without need for words Yes, they love us for the meals and baths and walks and shelter we provide them, but all it takes is one look into the eyes of a dog who is already fed, comfortable and needing nothing from you at the moment, to see that the way they regard you goes far beyond co-dependency, and is in fact some of the most genuine adoration you’re likely to experience. At least, that is, from someone who isn’t trying to get into your pants.
Just maybe your bed.