How dogs process, recognize our faces

For the first time, researchers have found evidence that dogs have a specialized region in their brains used to process faces, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ.

According to senior author Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, the study provides the first evidence of a face-selective region in the temporal cortex of dogs – a trait which had only previously been well-documented in humans and other primates.

As Dr. Berns explained to redOrbit via email, “Primates (both human and non-human) rely on facial expressions for many types of communication, so it is perhaps not very surprising that parts of the primate brain are dedicated to face-processing. But until now, we didn’t know if dogs had similarly dedicated parts of their brains.”

“The results point to the importance of face processing for dogs. This is quite significant because canids and primates are separated by at least 50 million years of evolution,” he added. “Either these face-processing regions of the brain are a general trait of many mammals, or dogs evolved it as part of their overall sociality with other animals, especially humans.”

Having neural regions dedicated to face-processing suggests that this ability is a deeply evolved aspect of brain function, Dr. Berns said, and it indicates that the dog’s extreme sensitivity to human faces and social cues “is not simply a learned response to associate a human face with food.”

Findings made possible due to Dr. Berns’ Dog Project

Dr. Berns is the head of the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, a project devoted to the study of evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best friend. Over the past four years, he and his colleagues have been training dogs to cooperatively sit for MRI scans, which he said they do without the need for sedation or restraints, remaining motionless during the process.

In previous research, the Dog Project located the canine brain’s reward center and demonstrated that this region had a stronger response to the scents of familiar people than to the scents of other people or familiar dogs. In the most recent experiment, they showed the dogs images of human faces, dog faces, and other objects while they were in the MRI being scanned, and that his team identified “a specific part of the dog’s brain that responded more to faces than objects.”

Since canines do not typically interact with two-dimensional images, the dogs had to be specially trained to pay attention to the screen. This led to a small sample size, as only six out of the eight dogs enrolled in the study could focus on each image for the 30 seconds needed to meet the experimental criteria, but the experiment nonetheless found a region in their temporal lope that responded significantly more to humans faces than other items.

Dr. Berns noted that the findings prove that “working with dogs to cooperatively participate in research can advance our understanding of the canine mind in ways that are not only highly ethical, but enjoyable for both canine and human participants. We can learn a great deal about the minds of our best friends just by teaching them to work with us.”

(Image credit: Thinkstock)