How To Look at Dogs

Preliminary MRI work backs up what most friends-of-dogs already know.

Oct 6 2013, 7:48pm
Image: Abby Logsdon

That’s my dog Harley above. I’ve been his guardian for about two years and we do most everything together. He’s some sort of Husky/German Shepherd mix and has a heart roughly the size of Earth’s moon. He is a creature that feels things as deeply—if more simply—as anything else alive in the universe. He is not, as is often posited about dogs, a manipulation/imitation drone just in it for the food and shelter. However unscientific that conclusion, I’d stake my life on his being a sentient, emotional being.

There are two problems with that idea, however. The first is that science really doesn’t have much to say about it. Brain imaging studies with dogs are difficult for the simple reason that dogs won’t typically sit still in a loud, weird MRI machine for long enough, and a brain scan of an anesthetized dog doesn’t tell us very much about what we want to know. Thus, it's impossible to do very much comparing and contrasting between dog brains and deep, emotional people brains beyond observing behavior.

The second problem is less practical and has to do with the general human worldview of anything that isn’t human. This is that life doesn’t just exist on a continuum of increasing capability for complex thoughts and emotions, but rather that there are humans and everything else. Special and non-special. Everything else is the domain of animals, which are surviving machines that can be utilized by humans, which are much more than mere surviving machines, but special and chosen. This is basically the entire history of humans interacting with their environment. To suggest that dogs and other creatures are more than surviving machines—or that we are surviving machines just like them—goes against a whole lot of very hard-wired ideas.

There’s a piece in The New York Times this weekend about a bit of interesting research backing up the notion of dogs as feeling creatures. It’s by neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns and comes via the opinion pages of the Times as the work isn’t yet published. Berns trained a dozen dogs to voluntarily go into the MRI machine and sit still long enough to get the first good brain scans of awake, “volunteer” dogs.

What he found was activation of the caudate nucleus in the dog’s brains in response to such things as food and the smells of familiar humans. Berns explains:

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. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

Berns notes this isn’t definitive proof that dogs experience “love” etc. but it is a hint of something. That’s a something that dog owners don’t particularly need a scientific study to demonstrate. But it's one one that has implications for the entire relationship between humans and the rest of the living world. If we are dealing with a planet full of other thinking, feeling machines like us or at least on the same thinking, feeling continuum as us, rather than mere survival machines, it puts our whole strategy of manic exploitation in question. Or it should, anyhow.

On that last point I have to think of Harley again and how he cowers around brooms, rakes, and other similarly shaped things. A rescue from a Maryland ASPCA, he was no doubt abused in some previous life. I've had him for two years and, still, a raised voice in his general vicinity causes Harley to flatten his ears back, lower his head, and prepare for the worst. Terrible people will always do terrible things, but there are beliefs that enable them. And one of those is the notion that other living things are not quite as living as human beings.