Dr. Gregory Berns knows a lot about the way man’s best friend probably thinks and feels. He’s looked inside their heads. And what he’s found there looks very much like what any snooping scientist with an MRI would expect to find peeking inside the brains of you and your lovelorn neighbor down the hall.
“My entire career has actually focused on one part of the brain called the caudate nucleus,” the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist And His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain says. “Every mammal has it—rats, monkeys, dogs.”
Berns says that for a long time, people thought that this part of the brain was really about pleasure—which isn’t exactly the case.
“When we do studies in humans, it's really about things like positive expectations about the future,” Berns explains. “It's really about anticipation. And not just attached to things like food, sex and money but other things like social rewards.” Looking at a photo of someone you love or even just working well with someone else can trigger postivie activity in that part of the brain. “It's really this epicenter of deposited emotions,” Berns says. “This is exactly the same part of the brain in dogs that we see activated by many of the same things we see in humans.”
In other words, Berns and his research team at Emory University just might be nose-to-nose with real doggie feelings.
“I'm very interested in this idea of animal emotions, which is extremely controversial among scientists, although it seems completely non-controversial amongst everyone else,” Berns says. “Most scientists do not necessarily believe, or find a need for animal emotions to explain what animals do. Although Darwin actually said, clearly, they have to have emotions because human emotions didn't just appear out of nowhere. They had to have evolved from something.”
But researchers can't demonstrate animal emotions from behavioral experiments, alone. That’s why Berns hopes that his team’s imaging experiments in areas in the human brain that activate during specific emotional states will also show that dogs—and probably many other animals as well—actually emote true feelings.
According to the fossil record, wolf-like dogs have been hanging around humans ever since we started settling down into communities about 11,000 years ago. And probably even before that amongst nomadic people.
But why did those early humans decide to accept the furry four-legged creatures? Generally, it’s thought that Fido’s ancestors may have helped Ice Age people hunt, or earned their keep guarding the community.
Berns isn’t so sure.
“Training wolves is quite difficult,” Berns points out. “And they also require lots of food, which was probably in short supply. So what probably happened was that the humans that could work with these animals got a benefit from being around them. Whether guarding or hunting, they had an advantage over humans that didn't work with them.”
From there, Berns says one can quickly extrapolate that prehistoric “dog whisperers” might have been more attractive to potential mates. And it's through this kind of mechanism that our beloved pets could have influenced the course of human evolution.
“Everything that I'm interested in now is focused on the dog-human relationship,” Berns says. “It’s really going gangbusters now. We have a dozen dogs which we call MRI dogs. They've gone through our first experiment and proven that they can hold still in the MRI.”
For Berns, dogs simply don’t make a lot of sense outside of human society since they are dependent on humans and can’t survive without people either directly or on the periphery of civilization.
“They evolved with us,” Berns says. “So all of the interesting questions to me are about their social cognition. I think for a lot of the non-dog people out there, there's this perception that dogs are just scam artists. That they act all cute and stuff just for food. But as someone who has lived with dogs all my life, I would say that is definitely not true. The difficulty now is to actually prove it.”
That’s where the MRI studies come in.
It’s only through brain imaging that Berns feels we can begin to determine if our beloved pets have the very human ability to “mentalize” our thought processes.
“The technical term is ‘theory of mind,’ which means that we have the ability to put ourselves in the mind of another person, and that's how we can communicate very efficiently,” Berns says. “I can imagine being in your shoes and vise-versa. It's not clear that any other animal does that to any degree. Maybe chimps do. So one of the possibilities that I'd like to explore with the imaging is whether dogs have any kind of theory of mind for humans.”
The implications of such a thing are enormous.
“Instead of using their social intelligence to hunt animals, dogs evolved in the other direction to live with other animals,” Berns says. “Dogs can live with almost any animal. There's really no other animal that does that.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.