Brain Scans Reveal What Dogs Really Think of Us

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SHAFAQNA – This partner story is part of BrainMic, a collaboration with GE to share the latest advances in brain research and technology.

We love our dogs.

In the 30,000 years humans and dogs have lived together, man’s best friend has only become a more popular and beloved pet. Today, dogs are a fixture in almost 50% of American households.

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 going on inside their furry heads, can we ever be sure?

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.

That’s right — scientists are actually studying the brains of dogs. 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 their family. It turns out that dogs rely on humans more than they do their own kind for affection, protection and everything in between.

The most direct brain-based evidence that dogs are hopelessly devoted to humans comes from a recent neuroimaging study about odor 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 behavior.

The scientists found that dog owners’ aroma actually sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the wafting smells to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else.

These results jibe with other canine neuroimaging 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.

In short: Dogs don’t just seem to pick up on our subtle mood changes — they are actually physically wired to pick up on them.

“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 neuroimaging 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.”

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