Dogs Experience Complex Emotions Too

Is man’s best friend a complex bundle of emotions?   Pet owners would all like to be able to have a better understanding of their pet’s feelings, right? Well now they can.

The New York Times reports on a study by Gregory Berns,  professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, and his colleagues who delve into the inner workings of the canine brain.  They were able to train dogs to go, unrestrained, into an MRI in order to see how their brains work.  After scanning a dozen dogs they found thatdogs are people too.” 

You can’t ask a dog why he does something or how he feels so this study aims at finding a more concrete understanding of dog emotions. Animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable…until now.

The issue with delving deeper into the canine brain is that you cannot study the brain function of anesthetized animals especially in perception or emotion and dogs typically do not like loud confined spaces so there was a need to try to find a solution to this conundrum.  Essentially, Bern treated the animals as children and the owners as consenting parents.  The researchers made participation voluntary and any dog could quit the study at any time; they were successful in training and scanning 12 canines including Bern’s dog Callie.

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After months of training and trial and errors they had the first map of a dog’s brain activity.  Based on the results, Berns was able to recognize that both dogs and humans use the same key brain region of the brain, the caudate nucleus, which sits between the brainstem and the cortex and plays a key role in anticipation of rewards and joy in people. It also plays an important role in the learning and memory system.

Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty…Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

This study is in its preliminary stages and more dogs will have to be trained and scanned but it has begun to answer basic questions about the canine brain.

 What are your thoughts on Scanning Dog’s brain to learn about their emotions?

2 responses to “Dogs Experience Complex Emotions Too”

  1. I think it is a fascinating idea. I have always been convinced that dogs have a certain innate intelligence which makes them so suitable as companions for humans. I have had dogs most of my life, and I believe they have about the same learning/understanding capacity as a very bright 4 year old. What has made it so difficult to quantify their intelligence has been their lack of linguistic skill.

  2. Izabella – thank you for your great comments and insights. You make a great point in your last sentence.

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