By Dr. Becker
In another study of canines using an fMRI scanner, researchers in Hungary discovered that doggy brains react to voices in the same way human brains do.1 And they even respond as we do to crying, laughter, and other sounds that are emotional in nature.
Based on their observations, Attila Andics, lead study author from the Comparative Ethology Research Group at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences said: "We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information."
Dogs Learn to Lie Motionless in the Scanner for Several Minutes
For the study, 11 pet dogs were chosen and trained using a positive reinforcement approach. The dogs were given a dozen sessions of preparatory training followed by seven sessions in the fMRI scanner room. At the conclusion of the training, the dogs were able to lie motionless in the scanner for up to eight minutes. The experience was apparently so positive for the dogs that according to Andics, "Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it."
For comparison purposes, the researchers evaluated the brains of 22 human volunteers in the same fMRI scanner used for the dogs. They played 200 different sounds to both the two- and four-legged participants, including environmental noises like automobile sounds, human sounds (not words), and canine communications.
Researchers Observed That Upon Hearing a Human Voice, the Same Area of the Brain Is Activated in Both People and Dogs
What Andics and his team discovered was that the temporal pole, which is the forward-most part of the temporal lobe, was activated in both the humans and the dogs when human voices were played.
It's an established fact that human brains respond more intensely to human sounds than any other types of sounds. But what surprised the researchers was finding that the location of activity in the dogs' brains is very similar to where it is in the human brain. And actually, the fact that the area exists at all in dogs' brains is a surprise, as this is the first time it has been seen in a non-primate animal.
When emotional sounds like crying and laughter were played for each group of study participants, the dogs' response again showed a very similar pattern of activity to that of the humans, with an area near the primary auditory cortex "lighting up" in both groups. And interestingly, when emotional-sounding dog vocalizations were played, for example, whimpering or fierce barking, once again the humans and dogs had a similar reaction. According to Dr. Andics:
"We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners, and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog – but we now begin to understand why this can be."
Follow-Up Study Will Focus on Response to Words vs. Sounds
While the dogs did respond in measurable ways to the human voice, their response to canine sounds was much stronger. The researchers also noted that the dogs weren't able to differentiate between environmental sounds and vocal noises to the same degree humans can.
Prof. Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London would like to see a study done to evaluate dogs' responses to words rather than just sounds. She makes the point that human cries and laughter are relatively primitive sounds that can mimic animal vocalizations, which may be causing the response observed in the study dogs. "A step further would be if they had gone in and shown sensitivity to words in the language their owners speak," said Scott.
Lead study author Andics agrees and says his next round of experiments will focus on dogs' sensitivity to their owners' words.