Owners have long described their dogs as being “members of the family” who hold an important emotional place in the household structure. Recent M.R.I. images of dogs’ brains suggest there is more to this sentiment than mere sentimentality.
As Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics and author of the soon to be released How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, writes in an article for The New York Times entitled “Dogs Are People, Too”:
“For the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.
“Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.”
The first dog he trained was his own, and once he was able to convince his dog to go into the M.R.I. machine of her own accord, and lie still for thirty seconds. They measured her brain as she smelled both familiar and unfamiliar humans and animals, and responded to hand gestures.
As word got out, more M.R.I. ready dogs were sent Berns’ way, and what he discovered may change how we perceive man’s best friend:
“Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
“Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money…
“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…”
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.
The thinking, then, is that if dogs have the ability to feel affection and emotion to a similar degree as children, can we really treat them as property? Is it fair to have working dogs, racing dogs, or to breed dogs in puppy mills?
While this may seem like science proving what dog owners already know, having scientific evidence that dogs experience these emotions is essential in moving society in one direction or another. In particular when it comes to the law, which doesn’t rely on anecdotes and emotional outpourings, but does respond to science and data.
So what do you think? Do these findings surprise you, or have you always thought of your dog as a four-legged person?
(Photo Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmarkham)
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