Special thanks to Gregory Berns for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain
Gregory Berns is the Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he directs the Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience and the Center for Neuropolicy. He uses MRI to study human and canine decision making.
#1 – When did it strike you that you could get a greater understanding of the dog brain using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)?
Back in 2011, when I saw pictures of military working dogs being trained to jump out of helicopters. I thought, “if dogs can learn how to do that, surely they can learn to hold still enough in an MRI” At first, nobody thought it would work, because the main criterion is staying motionless.
#2 – Is this the first example of cross-species testing using fMRI? Has anyone done testing with other techniques such as EEG (Electroencephalography)?
There are plenty of examples of fMRI in other species, mostly monkeys, and some rodents. However, in every other example, the animal has to be either sedated, anesthetized, and/or restrained. There have been some very recent reports of EEG in unrestrained dogs.
#3 – It sounds as though your colleagues were skeptical of examining the brains of dogs. What has been the response from dog owners?
Some love it because we’re beginning to understand scientifically what many dog owners have suspected all along. Some think it is a big waste of money.
#4 – What are the implications of this sort of testing to the ideas of animals intelligence and personhood for animals?
We have raised the bar for the ethical treatment of animals, especially in research. In most places in the world, animals are treated as property under the law. This means they can be disposed of as long as it is done humanely. Our research is showing that there is a continuity of brain function across the animal kingdom. Animals, of course, do not have the same cognitive capacities that humans do, but many basic functions, especially those related to emotions may be far more common than we realized. I believe this has implications for how we treat animals and that they should be treated as something more significant than property.
#5 – Do you have plans to write more about your research? Will there be a sequel that you can tell us about?
We are just beginning to scratch the surface of how the canine mind works. We have many more dogs who are MRI-trained now. Stay tuned for more results!