Special Science Book a Day Interview with Gregory Berns

callie-in-scanner

Callie inside an MRI scanner, looking at dog faces.

To celebrate the 2nd birthday of Science Book a Day (Science Book a Day Celebrates its 2nd Birthday!), we are delighted to re-interview Gregory Berns. He is the author of the most popular book on Science Book a Day – How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Published on the blog in October 2013, How Dogs Love Us has remained the blog’s most popular book for over 18 months. It tells the story of Berns training dogs, live and willing, to enter an MRI scanner and of him developing a research protocol that might tell us something unique about what is going on in the brain of our canine friends. The real process of research comes to the fore, a cast of dogs including Callie (pictured above) and the precious Lyra.

#1 – It’s been a couple of years since The Dog Project, which formed the basis of How Dogs Love Us – how has The Dog Project progressed? Can you give us any insight into your research topics after How Dogs Love Us?

Shortly after the book was published, we were successful in obtaining funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (which employs dogs in the military). This has allowed us to expand the project to more dogs. In the last 4 years, we have now trained over 30 dogs for MRI, many of whom are steady participants. We’ve been able to examine how dogs identify their owners through smell, how dog personality affects the brain response to signals from owners and strangers. More recently, we have been mapping how the dog’s brain processes faces and which parts of the brain are responsible for impulse control. We’ve even spun off a new project, in collaboration with Canine Companions for Independence, to train service dogs to undergo MRI to see if we can predict which dogs will be good assistance dogs.

#2 – The book has attracted a lot of attention since the release of the book. From your perspective, what has the response to the book been? From the public? Dog-lovers? Academics? Has the popularity of the book given you access to opportunities to things you didn’t have before?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been on the NYT bestseller lists twice, and I think it resonates with dog-lovers. Academics have been less interested, but that is to be expected since dogs have not figured prominently in research. I think many academics are still wedded to rodent models for research. Certainly the book’s popularity raises the visibility of our work, but it hasn’t yet resulted in any new projects (which, of course, require funding!)

#3 – Has the book and your research stimulated a more serious examination of dog cognition using fMRI? Are people around the world following your lead?

A few other groups have begun doing this, but it remains labor intensive for the training and expensive to use the MRI. I wish veterinarians would seriously consider awake imaging, but they are just beginning to show interest in it.

#4 – Your book demonstrated an honest portrayal about how research projects are developed in science, and using fMRI. Have you received feedback from students about this process?

Not really. I think most readers are drawn along by the story but mainly want to know what dogs are thinking.

#5 – Your family was quite central to your book. How have they reacted to their sudden fame? Will Callie be getting her own tv-show?

Hah! I think you overestimate the ‘fame’ aspect.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books? Will there be a sequel to dogs love us? Will it be turned to a documentary?

I have been developing a new book project, but it is not strictly a sequel. The dog project got me interested in the minds and brains of other animals, and my lab has been looking at the wiring of several exotic species – including dolphins, sea lions, and seals. The brains are recovered after these animals die (usually from stranding events), but we can still learn a lot about how their minds work. I have also become obsessed with the brain of an animal well-known in your part of the world – the Tasmanian tiger.

[Image Credit: Author supplied]

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