In movies, talking dogs are one of our favorite tropes. From Homeward Bound to the army of evil dogs in Up, we seem to think we’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s going on in fido’s brain. It probably involves toys, and chasing squirrels, and wanting belly rubs.
But, what are dogs really thinking? Are they secretly judging us and our poor wardrobe choices? Are they plotting to overthrow humanity? Or are they not thinking anything at all? Where Hollywood fails, science has the answer! Well, sort of.
Researchers at Emory University put a bunch of dogs in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. That’s the same machine that reads human brains for all sorts of studies. The dogs owners then gave them hand signals, and the machine picked up what was going on in their brains.
The dogs had to be trained over several months to walk into the scanner and hold still - any movement could mess up the reading. One hand signal meant that the dog would get a treat, while the other meant no treat. When the dog saw the hand signal for treat, the area of the brain associated with rewards in humans was activated. So, the dog was paying attention to the treat signal and has a similar brain structure to humans.
But what does this really mean? We love our dogs, we think that they think about us all the time, is this just another search for something that’s not really there. Carl Zimmer’s piece in Time recently saying (unpopularity, as you might imagine) that dogs aren’t really truly our friends the way we might think.
Even the way the researchers describe the dogs in the study suggests that they might have some opinions about doggy brains. ““The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too,” Gregory Berns, the direct of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy said in the press release. More brain scanning will be required to really understand what our dogs think about us, if they do at all.
Bonus: the study comes with adorable pictures of the two dogs involved: Callie and MCKenzie. And a video!
Photo: Emory University