Advances in neuroscience stand to revolutionize the way society views dogs. Together with his adopted black terrier, neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University has begun to run magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on canines in an effort to understand their capacity for emotion and human characteristics. His conclusion? Dogs are people, too.
For a long time, a dog’s emotional life has been tricky subject. One the one hand, the animal seems eerily attuned to the entire gamut of human feelings, as she responds to everything from sadness and anxiety to happiness and excitement. That said, a dog’s inability to attest to her intent makes it impossible to assess formally the emotional content of any such response.
In the unfortunate absence of talking dogs, people have traditionally turned to behavioral observations. However, such studies require two fundamental assumptions: that thought precedes all action, and that a particular thought can be inferred from the exhibited action. It follows that such research efforts yield educated hypotheses rather than actual results.
“You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels,” Berns wrote in a recent op-ed published in The New York Times. “The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.”
Thanks to Bern’s latest project, this mentality may soon change. Together with dog trainer Mark Spivak, he has successfully trained canine volunteers to undergo MRI scans without sedation or restraints in his own living room. The results indicate that dogs and humans may share several physiological mechanisms associated with emotions.
According to Berns, a striking similarity was discovered in the caudate nucleus –– a key brain region thought to control positive reactions and preferences. Unlike other cerebral activity, that of the caudate appears to be a reliable indicator of the actions associated with it. In other words, we can infer discrete cognitive functions from it.
“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,” Berns explained. “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”
Berns hopes that the new research project will eventually inspire a fundamental reassessment of the dog’s place in society. Given the growing influence of neuroscience on U.S. courts, could our canine companions soon be elevated from their legal status as “property”?