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Are the Brains of Dogs and Humans Equally Complex? Science Says ... Maybe

A study of 12 dogs suggests that dogs' emotions are as nuanced and real as those of people.

 |  Oct 9th 2013  |   5 Contributions


Dog lovers can find themselves being teased (or even outright mocked) for treating their beloved pets like people. The next time one of your friends rolls their eyes and reminds you that "It's just a dog!" You might want to let that person know about Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University.

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Mason, one of Berns's test subjects, getting fitted for earmuffs that protect against the loud noises inside the fMRI. (@gberns Twitter feed)

Berns has trained 12 dogs to enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI, and lie still while their brain activity is mapped. This is remarkable enough in itself; it's notoriously difficult to get humans to lie still in MRI machines, which are small, cramped, and loud. But Berns has, for the first time, gotten neurological scans of fully awake, unrestrained dogs.

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A test subject named Honey waits patiently in a mockup of the fMRI machine used to train the dogs. (@gberns Twitter feed)

Writing on the opinion page of the New York Times over the weekend, Berns claimed that the results show that a dog's cognition and emotional responses are on a par with those of a human child. And maybe, he says, that means that it really is time for us to start thinking of dogs as people:

Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of "guardian" to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals' interest.

The research is undeniably interesting: How often do you get to see a dog's brain at work? But there is some room for skepticism. At this point, Berns has only one study based on the 12 highly trained dogs. A sample that size offers more opportunities for questions rather than answers.

The next step is to see what happens when Berns' colleagues start to pick his research apart like a pack of Chihuahuas fighting over a new sock monkey. But for anyone who's looked into a dog's face and felt warmed by the love and loyalty, there's at least the beginnings of some evidence that they're not just looking at you as a kibble dispenser.

Via the New York Times

Top photo: Dog Intelligence by Shutterstock.

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