When neuroscientist GREGORY BERNS saw military dogs jumping from helicopters, he thought that maybe pooches could be trained to go into MRI scanners too
This month, we discuss What It’s Like To Be A Dog by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who thought that pooches could be trained to go into MRI scanners
Most neuroscientists study humans. Why did you start looking at dogs?
After 20 years of working with humans, I had this crazy idea. I wanted to know about the dog-human relationship. Do they love us in the way we love them? Or is it all a sham, an innocent duplicity propagated by dogs to act all cute in exchange for food and shelter?
How did you get started?
Everyone thought I was crazy, but I teamed up with a local dog trainer and taught Callie, my black terrier mix, to go into an MRI scanner unrestrained, completely awake, so I could see what she was thinking. We then recruited other volunteers and ended up with a dozen dogs who were trained to sit still in MRIs.
You called them volunteers?
We followed three rules. We didn’t do anything to harm the dogs, we didn’t restrain them at all, and we gave them the right of self-determination. We provided steps for them to walk in and out of the scanner instead of placing them in. The dogs had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.
So, what is it like to be a dog?
Our most important finding was how different the dogs are from each other. Implicit in our question ‘What is it like to be a dog?’ is the assumption that all dogs are the same. But that’s ridiculous! That’s like asking what it’s like to be human. Like humans, dogs are individuals, and no matter what experiment we do, there’s always a range of brain activity patterns that correspond to their personalities. What were your most important findings? We’ve done over a dozen different experiments. In one, we found that dogs have a part of their brain that recognises faces, just like primates and humans. We don’t know whether that’s hardwired or a learned response from living with humans, but we now know that they pay attention to our faces.
In another, we looked at how dogs process the smells of members of their household, and we found that a dog’s reward system is most responsive to the smell of their owner, indicating that the smell has a positive association for them.
Is that positive association because they love us, or are they just using us for food?
We did an experiment where one hand signal meant that they’d get a treat, and another meant that their owner would pop in to view and praise them. We found that those reward systems were equally active. The experiment showed that praise itself is rewarding to the dog too. It’s not just all about food.
We can’t say exactly what that feels like for the dogs, but we know that when we give them things that they like, such as food or praise, we see a reward system response that’s similar to what we see in humans. From that, I concluded that it’s highly likely that the dogs are feeling something similar to how we feel when we’re given something we like.
As dog owners, what do we need to know?
We often anthropomorphise too much – dogs aren’t miniature humans. They may understand some things but they don’t have the real estate in the brain to process language like we do. So, practically, less is more when we’re speaking to our animals. Fewer words is better, and consistency is critical.
But they do have basic emotions like we do. They experience negative ones like fear and anxiety, but they also enjoy things and experience pleasure, too.
WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A DOG BY GREGORY BERNS