A neuroscientist wonders what goes on in the minds of our pet dogs: Do we delude ourselves when we believe that they love us?
“It all comes down to reciprocity,” writes Berns (Neuroeconomics/Emory Univ.; Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, 2008, etc.). Are dogs simply conditioned to greet us enthusiastically, in the expectation of obtaining treats? Obviously, we can't answer the question of what it is like to be a dog, but we can explore the similarities between their brains and those of humans, using modern techniques for imaging the brain. As the director of a laboratory, the author, using fMRI, studies the neurological basis for human decision-making. A devoted pet lover as well as a dedicated scientist, Berns’ determination to probe a dog's mental life was catalyzed when he saw a photo of a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden parachuting from a helicopter while holding his dog. The image reinforced his conviction that “dogs and humans belong together [and cannot] exist without each other.” With agreement from the university and members of his research team, Berns decided to do an off-budget project to see what brain scans could tell about the way dogs think. For the project to succeed, however, they would need to accustom dogs to entering the machine and lying still. Using his own dog as the first subject, the author chronicles the deepening bond between them during the training. Brain scans of his dog and another canine subject showed that the area of their brains activated in anticipation of a treat is the same as in human subjects anticipating a reward of some kind. While the results are not definitive, Berns believes he “saw direct evidence of reciprocation in the dog-human relationship and social cognition in the canine brain.”
A solid introduction to an appealing new area of research. For a useful complementary read, check out John Pilley’s Chaser (2013).