Thursday, January 30, 2014

Do Dogs Think Like We Do? You Betcha!

I'm A Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

It is an amazing time to be a dog, and a dog mom (or dad)! Things are just snappin’ in the dog world right now. Tons of books, magazines, and websites are talking about dogs--the genetics of dogs, the physiology of dogs, the evolution of dogs, the training of dogs, you name it.  Now that I’m in the “Dog Biz,” I get tons of dog-themed gifts from friends and family—socks, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and most of all, books.  I am a huge reader—both fiction and non-. I adored Marley and Me, Racing in the Rain, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle; this last one is not a “dog book” per se, but offers a spot-on rendering of the profound, understanding-beyond-words-core of the human/dog relationship. In the past year or so, I’ve begun to focus on non-fiction books about dogs—in particular, the genetics and neuroscience of Canis Lupus Familiaris. For Christmas, my wonderful husband gave me How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, by Greogry Berns, M.D., Ph.D. We both read it in only a few days. It is AWESOME.

Dr. Berns has studied the “reward center” of the human brain for years—what humans like, how we like it, why we sometimes like it too much, and how that information gets processed in our noggins. His work using fMRI, or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, has shown that the place in the brain that anticipates goodness is called the caudate nucleus, located in oldest part of the brain (some call it the “reptilian brain”)—the basal ganglia. The caudate is active in learning, memory, goal-setting, and social behavior. It allows us to understand that certain actions result in certain outcomes.

Now, Dr. Berns is a true-blue dog lover. And when his dog, Newton, passed away, he began to wonder, Had Newton loved him like he had loved Newton? He thought he had. Newton, a pug, had slept buried in his armpit every night of his life. But how could he know for sure? Could he prove it? So, he launched the Dog Project to try to answer the question. What he found answered much more.

The story of the Dog Project is an amazing one. It’s about a journey, tracing the growing trust, friendship, and love that grew between Dr. Berns and Callie, a Feist that his wife and daughters had adopted from a shelter. At first, Berns didn’t know if he even liked Callie; she wasn’t like any other dog he’d had before. She was skittish and not very affectionate. She was a hunter, chasing down and catching, with glee, various small animals and rodents in the back yard of their home in Atlanta, Georgia. This really upset his young daughters, but what else could Callie do? Her genetics mandated that she hunt, since she had the blood of the Treeing Feist coursing through her veins. (Before this book, I’d never heard about Feists; what a cool, all-American dog!) And, as he found out, she was super smart; it’s not every dog who can learn to lie perfectly still for 10 minutes in a really loud MRI machine while humans take pictures of her brain!  This was a BIG DEAL. No one had ever captured an image of a wide-awake dog brain. The Dog Project team took more than 400! And what they showed proved that a dog’s brain works a lot like a human’s.

When Callie was in the MRI, she and Dr. Berns “talked” to each other. He’d taught Callie two hand signals: “hot dogs” and “no hot dogs.” When he signaled “hot dogs,” he waited several seconds, then gave Callie a small piece of a hot dog. When he signaled “no hot dogs,” he waited, then gave her nothing. He signaled randomly, multiple times. Meanwhile, the MRI was taking photos of Callie’s brain. When Callie saw the “hot dogs” signal, her caudate lit up like wild fire. When she saw the “no hot dogs” signal, her caudate was dark. This meant that Callie understood that the “hot dogs” hand signal meant “hot dogs are coming” and that was a good thing! It meant that she could look into the future and know what her dad was going to do. Dr. Berns describes it this way: “. . .Callie looked at my hand signals and constructed a dog theory of what I was thinking or at least intending. [A] dog theory of mind . . . Callie’s caudate activation was just the first piece of evidence that my intentions had been received, and understood, in her brain” (Berns, 183-4). So what is a theory of mind? Wikipedia defines it this way: “Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.” This just floored me. I’d always marveled at the level to which my dogs understand me; they know when I’m happy, sad, mad, or even pretending to be mad—making my scary “monster” face, “claws” up and growling. They just wag their tails and do the play bow. “Aw, mom! You’re just silly!” they seem to be saying. Thanks to the Dog Project, I now know how their brains allow them to read me like a book.

Callie’s MRI scans also showed activation of mirror neurons, which lets mammals place themselves in each other’s shoes. Berns says, “At a basic scientific level, these neurons seem to play a key role in linking action production with action observation and to allow animals to understand the actions of other members of their species from their own perspective. Many researchers have suggested mirror neurons are the basis of empathy. If this turns out to be true, then mirror neurons not only allow us to simulate the actions of each other from the inside, but they may allow us to feel what someone else feels too” (Berns, 191). When Callie watched her dad reaching for the hot dogs, her motor cortex lit up, although she did not move. Dr. Berns postulated that Callie was mirroring, or mapping the movement of her human’s hand onto her own equivalent—her front leg and paw.  This kind of mirror-mapping has been shown in humans. “In 2010, an fMRI study reported that when people watched silent movies of a dog barking, the parts of the humans’ brains that responded to sounds were activated, even though there was no actual sound. It was like the humans filled in the sound of a dog barking just by observation. But seeing this kind of mirror neuron activity in Callie  . . . meant that the whole dog-human relationship was not just a scam. If dogs had the ability to transform human actions into their own doggie equivalent, then maybe they really did feel what we feel. At least a dog version of it” (Berns, 192-3).

This book is so filled with new information about what and how dogs think, I could go on and on and on. I think I’ll read it again. It is very accessible, putting cutting-edge science into layman’s terms. But more than that, the story of Berns, his family (both humans and dogs), his research team, and the wonderful contributions of the dogs in the Dog Project—McKenzie, Kady, Rocky, Caylin, Huxley, and Tigger—will make you smile, while leaving you wide-eyed with wonder. “The whole purpose of the Dog Project was to understand the dog-human relationship from the dog’s perspective, and the most important thing that we learned was that dogs’ brains show evidence of a theory of mind for humans. This means that they not only pay attention to what we do but to what we think, and they change their behavior based on what they think we’re thinking” (Berns, 211). I can’t wait to find out what else Dr. Berns, Callie, and the gang discover!


Dr. Gregory Berns:

Theory of Mind:

Thanks for visiting!  Michelle Vardeman Martin

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