“The heart of my interest is the dog-human relationship,” says Emory neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, director of the university's Center for Neuropolicy. His latest research involves training dogs to enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) and hold perfectly still, so that he can scan their brain activity.
Berns research began with his own pet, Callie, adopted from an animal shelter, and has expanded to include a dozen “MRI-certified” canines. Only positive training methods are used on the dogs. They remain awake and unrestrained in the fMRI as they respond to stimuli like hand signals indicating food and smells of familiar humans.
The results Berns has gathered so far are the subject of his new book, “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”
“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,” Berns says. “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.”
Berns wrote an opinion piece for the Sunday New York Times, “Dogs are People, Too,” that has been the most emailed NYT story for two days running.
“Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain,” Berns writes in the article, “we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. …
“In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.”
What is your dog thinking?