They may not speak English or easily walk on two legs, but dogs may have more in common with humans than previously believed.
According to research conducted by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain,” dogs may use the same part of the brain as humans do to “feel.”
“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,” Berns wrote in the New York Times.
To study dogs’ brains, Berns was able to assemble a group of 12 dogs that were able to enter an MRI scanner while being completely awake and remain still during the procedure. After a year of finding “MRI-certified” canines, researchers tested the dogs’ responses to two-hand signals.
The scans showed similarities between dog and human in one part of the brain: the candidate nucleus, a region that plays an integral role in memory and learning. In the same way the region predicts preferences for food in humans, it showed in dogs an increase response to hand signals for food as well, Berns found. The candidate nucleus also showed activity when dogs were separated momentarily from their owners -- a sign of attachment.
“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,” Berns said, in describing a new outlook in which dogs are no longer considered property.
“One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions,” Berns said. “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.”
This isn’t the first study to draw a connection between dogs and their human counterparts. In August, new research from Japan showed that dogs experienced “contagious” yawning the same way humans do.
Scientists observed 25 dogs and their responses to yawns from their owners and unfamiliar humans. Researchers found that the dogs were more likely to yawn when their owners did.
“Our study suggests that contagious yawning in dogs is emotionally connected in a way similar to [the way it is in] humans,” study leader Teresa Romero of the University of Tokyo, said in a statement.