Man's Best Friend's Brain at Work
From the way dogs thump their tails, invade our laps and steal our pillows, it certainly seems like they love us back. But since dogs can't tell us what's really going on inside their furry heads, can we ever be truly certain how they feel about us?
Actually, yes. Thanks to recent developments in brain imaging technology, we're starting to get a better picture of the happenings inside the canine cranium.
Scientists are studying the dog brains and how they react to different stimuli. And what the studies show is welcome news for all dog owners: Not only do dogs seem to love us back, they actually see us as family. It turns out that dogs rely on humans more than they do other dogs for affection, protection and food - and this translates into a very strong emotional bond. They see humans as the alpha leaders of a pack, and thus consider humans to be family.
The most direct dog brain-based evidence showing that they are hopelessly devoted to humans comes from a recent neuro-imaging study about odour processing in the dog brain. Animal cognition scientists at Emory University trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure their neural responses to the smell of people and dogs, both familiar and unknown. Because dogs navigate the world through their noses, the way they process smell offers a lot of potential insight into social behaviour.
These results jibe with other canine neuro-imaging research. In Budapest, researchers at Eotvos Lorand University studied canine brain activity in response to different human and dog sounds, including voices, barks and the meaningful grunts and sighs both species emit. Before this study, we had no idea what happens inside canine brains when humans make noise.
Among other surprising findings, the study revealed marked similarities in the way dog and human brains process emotionally laden vocal sounds. Researchers found that happy sounds in particular light up the auditory cortex in both species. This commonality speaks to the uniquely strong communication system underlying the dog-human bond.
Thus we have learned the following: Dogs don't just seem to pick up on our subtle mood changes - they are actually physically wired to pick up on them. They have evolved to be able to sense human mood changes.
"It's very interesting to understand the tool kit that helps such successful vocal communication between two species," Attila Andics, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, told Mic. "We didn't need neuro-imaging to see that communication works [between dogs and people], but without it, we didn't understand why it works. Now we're really starting to."
Behaviour research supports the recent neuroscience too. According to Andics, dogs interact with their human caregivers in the same way babies do their parents. When dogs are scared or worried, they run to their owners, just as distressed toddlers make a beeline for their parents. This is in stark contrast to other domesticated animals: Petrified cats, as well as horses, will run away from a threat.
Dogs are also one of the few non-primate animals to look people in the eyes. This is something Andics, along with other researchers, discovered about a decade ago when he studied the domestication of wolves, which he thought would share that trait. They endeavoured to raise wolves like dogs. This is a unique behaviour between dogs and humans — dogs seek out eye contact from people, but not their biological dog parents.
"Bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets," said Andics.
Dog-lovers have committed a few notable gaffes in interpreting dogs' facial expressions, e.g., assuming the often-documented hangdog look signifies guilt, an emotion that, most behaviour experts agree, requires a multifaceted notion of self-awareness that dogs probably don't have.
But, as with family, our instinctive hunches about dog behaviour are often correct.
"Sometimes our intuition about what's going on inside dogs' heads is dead-on," said Laurie Santos, the lead researcher at Yale's Canine Cognition Center. "Like, that dogs are seeking out help from us — and that's true based on studies — which is different from even their closest relatives, wolves."
The precise wish or worry lurking in a dog's doleful look may not always be clear. But we can relish the fact that we know our dogs love us as much as we hoped, maybe even more.
Now if we can just figure out how to herd cats, the world would be a better place.
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