In October 2013, Gregory Berns published an article in the New York Times, “Dogs Are People, Too.” From the beginning of the article:
Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.
Berns recounts how he and his colleagues trained dogs to go into an MRI scanner, making it possible to study their brain activity under various circumstances. Then:
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.
But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
This is important work, and I very much appreciate Gregory Berns for undertaking it. However, I can’t help feeling that the reason this study is important is that somehow we can’t fully believe what’s plain to see with our own eyes.
Isn’t it odd that we have to put dogs in an MRI machine to prove that they experience emotions much as we humans do, when anyone who has spent time with a dog can easily recognize when the dog is feeling fear, anger, joy, sadness, excitement, boredom, or contentment? We have the innate ability to read the emotional state of other humans. The ways dogs exhibit emotions are similar enough to the ways humans do that it’s quite easy for us to recognize them.
It’s legitimate to be wary of anthropomorphizing animals. Dogs are different from us in ways both obvious and hidden, and we can fall into ascribing human-like motives for their behavior that are far from reality. But we can also make the opposite mistake: assuming that animals are more alien, more different from humans than they actually are. (Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a word for this. Suggestions, anyone?)
Humans and dogs are both mammals. We share common ancestors (perhaps 100 million years ago) and evidence suggests that dogs and humans have co-evolved over the past 32,000 years. Since emotional processes evolved much earlier than the exclusively human neocortex where our rational thinking and planning occur, it would be much more surprising to find that humans and dogs do not share similar emotions than to find that we do.
The Berns study found that the sound of human speech, as well as the sounds of human emotional sounds like crying and laughing, elicited similar responses in the brains of both dogs and humans. This suggests not only that dogs have emotional lives similar to the emotional lives of humans, but that they are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners. (This is described in more detail in this article at io9.)
Gregory Berns writes:
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
Dogs have long been considered property… But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.
One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions… If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.
Human society can be very slow to change. We have not yet even reached a common agreement that all humans are deserving of equal rights and respect, let alone dogs and other nonhuman creatures. But I trust we are moving in that direction.