Berns (Neuroeconomics/Emory Univ.; How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, 2013, etc.) reveals how his training to be a doctor shaped his life in unexpected ways.
The author was using MRI to study the processes involved in decision-making when the death of a beloved dog led him to ponder the human-dog relationship. After viewing photographs of the capture of Osama bin Laden in which dogs were jumping from helicopters under chaotic conditions, the author believed if he could train a dog to enter an MRI machine voluntarily, he could compare the functioning of human and dog brains. One of his motives was to refute the rationale that dogs are unaware of their own suffering, a view that was used to justify the medical school practice of dissecting them without anesthesia while still alive. Dogs (and other animals) can be conditioned to respond to hand signals or spoken words, but Berns asks, to what extent do they understand that these signals are intended to convey a meaningful message? A first step in the investigation involved figuring out if dogs share “the same basic structures for emotion” as humans. “Animals can represent and communicate knowledge in nonverbal ways,” but more is involved than just the structures. The connectivity between regions of the brain is also a determining factor in the level of consciousness and self-awareness of animals. By providing the “roadmap for the level of consciousness that is possible,” animals as diverse as dogs, apes, and whales can understand spoken commands and hand signals. As pet lovers already know, such experiments confirm that dogs also recognize and respond to body language that indicates the emotional states of other dogs and humans. The author explains that his purpose in writing this book is “to raise awareness of the mental lives of the animals with whom we share the planet.” In that, he succeeds.
An impressive overview of modern neurology and the still-unanswered issues raised by our treatment of our fellow living creatures.