To get inside a live dog’s brain, at least as one scientist sees it, you must first get the dog inside an MRI, which turned out to be a pretty big challenge for researchers at Emory University
In an effort to get a better grasp on what dogs are thinking, Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, sent his own dog and others into an MRI — not with the use of force or restraints, but after training them to willingly enter the noisy, claustrophobia-inducing machine.
That was no simple task, as the video above shows, and as he recounts in the current issue of Psychology Today.
The knowledge gained from all that work? Hardly earth-shattering, but it’s a beginning that could end up leading to some amazing places:
“Critically, we found that the reward system of the dog’s brain behaves very much like the human’s. When Callie and McKenzie saw us giving a hand signal that indicated they were about to receive a hot dog treat, a part of their brain called the caudate lit up with activity. This is the same part of the brain that in humans becomes active when we anticipate something good about to happen. In fairness, this was exactly what we expected, because all animals have reward systems that respond to incentives.”
The research was inspired by the dog that took part in the Navy Seal raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Berns said:
“This should not have been particularly surprising, and certainly not to anyone associated with the military. Dogs had been part of military units throughout the 20th century. But the fact that a dog had helped kill the most wanted man in the world was something special. It showed that dogs were not just companions. Even though it could have no concept of democracy or freedom or individual liberty, a dog had helped defend a way of life…
“After learning the incredible things these dogs can do, I resolved to figure out what was actually going on in the mind of man’s-best-friend by using the tools of my trade: brain scanning technology.”
Berns started out with his own dog, a feist named Callie, and a border collie named McKenzie. Researchers watched what went on in their brains as they responded to two human hand signals.
But it took a long time to get to that point.
“ … We were naïve, and there were many hurdles. Ultimately, we wanted the dogs to walk up a set of steps into an MRI scanner, and shimmy inside a ‘head coil,’ which detects the signals from the brain but looks like a small birdcage lying on its side. Once in the coil they would need to put their head on a chin rest and remain absolutely motionless. A few millimeters of movement would completely destroy the image quality. And one more thing: when the MRI is running, it sounds like a jackhammer.”
Because of the scanner noise, the dogs had to be trained to wear ear muffs. All the dogs were allowed to quit the experiment at any time. “We used only positive reinforcement,” he said. “Just food and praise.
Berns said the research started year ago and is aimed at answering “the eternal question of what dogs are really thinking. More specifically, we wanted to know what a dog is thinking when it looks at its human owner.”
“As a lifelong dog owner, and currently living with dogs #6 and #7, I would like to think that I know something about what goes on in my dogs’ heads … If you saw me walking the feist you might naturally conclude that I really knew what she was thinking. After all, I talk to her like a person. Never mind that she doesn’t respond. We have developed a relationship that transcends human language. We gaze into each others’ eyes like people do. So surely there must be a bond there.
“Or is it all one-sided? Is the dog-human bond all a sham, albeit one played willingly by both parties, with the dog getting food and shelter in return for making goo-goo eyes at its owner, and the owner getting a simulacrum of undying love?
Berns believes “gazing into our dogs’ brains is like a portal back in time. We now have the tools to see how they see us. We can see the things activating in their heads that our hominid ancestors selected from the dogs’ wolfen brethren. And now we can see it from the dog’s perspective…
“Now we can begin to answer questions like: can dogs map human emotions onto their own feelings, in other words, do they have empathy? How much language do they understand? Just because they don’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t tell what we are saying.”
To learn more about The Dog Project, go here.
Posted by jwoestendiek May 7th, 2012 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: animals, border collie, brains, callie, dog, dog brains, dogs, emory center for neuropolicy, emory university, empathy, experiment, feist, gregory berns, killing, language, mckenzie, mri, neuroscience, osama bin laden, pets, psychology today, raid, relationship, scanner, science, the dog project, training