Over thousands of years, dogs have earned the title of man’s best friend. Yet even as their companionship brings us joy and satisfaction, we might wonder what’s going on inside their heads. Do they adore us as much as we adore them, or do they just see us as reliable dispensers of food?
In his new book, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience,” bestselling author Gregory Berns describes scientific breakthroughs that show the brains of dogs and other animals are remarkably similar to those of humans. Berns is a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, and he and his research team have successfully taught dogs to sit completely still and unrestrained in MRI scanners. By scanning the dog’s brain activity when the dog responds to simple tests, the researchers are able to gain insights into how these animals think and feel.
“What It’s Like to be a Dog” covers Berns’ neuroscience research with dogs and studies focused on the brains of animals, including dolphins and sea lions. This growing body of research shows we share characteristics with animals that for centuries were considered solely human, including the ability to dance, feel regret and find pleasure in a familiar face.
In one pivotal experiment called Food vs. Praise, Berns and his associates attempted to understand how dogs respond to the dilemma of choosing between competing rewards. As part of the study, they trained the animals on three objects: when a toy car was shown to each dog, the toy signified that its owner would soon praise it; a toy knight signified a hot dog treat was imminent; and a hairbrush was shown as a control object. The researchers then scanned the dogs’ brains to gauge the level of anticipation they showed for the various objects, followed by behavioral tests to determine whether, given a choice, the dogs would head to a bowl of food or to their owners’ side. When the brain scans and the behavioral tests were compared, researchers found dogs that headed to their owners’ side more often also showed higher brain activity when receiving praise. They showed personal preference, very much like humans express.
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The research described in Berns’ latest book lays the foundation for what many animal lovers have long suspected: that many animals have the ability to think and feel in patterns similar to human beings. It is possible to understand what it’s like to be a dog, a dolphin or even a mouse, a revelation that has implications for how we view and handle animal research and animal rights.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Berns airs in early 2018. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at tinyurl.com/y8ovsrc5.
“What It’s Like to Be a Dog And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience”
by Gregory Berns;
Basic Books ($28)