May 7, 2012
Dog Gone It — What Are They Thinking?
Marshal Rosenthal for RedOrbit.com
Researchers at Emory University think that the way to a dog´s heart is through its brain. At least, that´s what members of the research team -- Andrew Brooks, Gregory Burns and Mark Spivak -- postulate through a scanning procedure seeking to unlock the secrets our canine friends have been concealing for eons.
The device used is a functional Magnetic Resonance Scanner (fMRI), more often found with humans inside than canines. Through the application of the harmless scan, the full conscious, if less than frisky, dog placed inside can have its brain scanned. Ear coverings minimize the sound so as to protect the canine´s hearing.
The algorithms being used are specific to this purpose -- no humans need apply. Initial tests have been completed using two dogs, both of whom have undergone the necessary training to enable them to enter the fMRI and remain calm and still until the scan has been completed. This training alone is notable, since lying still on command seems to be something that continues to elude two-legged beings regardless of whether they´re in a scanner or just seated waiting for their number to be called at the DMV.
Testing involves scanning the caudate area of the brain where rewards are associated with humans. The tests included looking into how the dog´s brain reacted to hand signals, which signaled positive as well as negative results; such as a hand signal signifying a treat is coming, versus a hand signal communicating that nothing will be offered. The tests showed that the caudate area “lit up” when the hand signal for a treat was indicated. This also indicates that dogs pay very close attention to hand signals. Other tests are designed to delve into the areas of body movements and even how dogs categorize their human companions in their minds.
Dogs are chosen for this testing because they have been domesticated for thousands of years. As a result they are comfortable being around humans -- something that is not the case with the typical monkey that is often used in test situations. This eliminates variables as well as makes the chance of being bitten less likely (those researchers working with animals without wearing any protective gear are a brave bunch).
Such research could lead to a greater understanding of dog cognition as well as the relationship between dogs and humans. That dogs pay close attention to their owners has always been assumed, but now science has come along to make the point more forcibly in the attempt to decode just what dogs are thinking and how much language they actually understand.
According to neuroscientist Greg Burns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project, this could open up a whole new avenue of research on the issues of cognition. But whatever the results of these tests may hold, it´s a fair bet that those dogs participating in the tests have come to expect a tasty treat for their efforts. And rightly so.
Results of the first their first experiment are published in PLoS ONE.