We love our dogs so much and are so close to them that we often feel like we know exactly what they're thinking. We can read each tiny reaction in their face, each wag of their tail as a signal of not only what they want but of how they feel about us. Now new research at Emory University promises to give the first insight ever into what is actually going on in a dog's brain when they're reacting to us and to the world around them. It's fascinating stuff, but it also raises the question: Do we really want to know what our dogs actually have on their mind?
Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory, had the idea for the research after it become public that a dog had been used in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. He realized that if dogs could be trained to jump out of helicopters, they could surely be trained to go into an MRI machine and lie still for the 10-15 seconds necessary to do a brain scan. Once that was possible, the MRI could be used to determine what the heck is going on in those little dog brains.
It took eight months for Berns and his colleagues to train two dogs to go into the MRI machines and be still. The most difficult part, apparently, was helping the dogs get over the loud screeching noise the machine makes. They were able to devise a system where the dogs wear earmuffs (cute!), and they also play a recording of the noise in the lab before the machine fires up so the dogs don't get startled.
Once the dogs mastered getting into the MRI machine, Berns and his team were able to carry out their first experiment. They compared what happened when the dog was shown a hand signal that meant she would get a hot dog versus a signal that meant she would not get a hot dog. It was a simple thing, but it worked. Says Berns of the accomplishment:
Nobody as far as I know had ever captured images of a dog's brain that wasn't sedated. This was a fully awake, unrestrained dog and here we had a picture, for the first time ever, of her brain. It was incredible.
Now that they have proof they can do it, the possibilities for what they can explore are pretty much limitless. Berns says he might try to figure out whether dogs have empathy for their owners, which would involve showing them pictures of their owners being hurt, say being poked with a pin, and seeing if the dog's brain shows a pain response. They're also interested in figuring out whether dogs process human language as random sounds or if they have some structure for understanding language. Berns explains the bigger picture,
Ultimately our goal is to understand the human/dog relationship from the human perspective. People believe their dog understands and loves them, and we want to know what the dog is thinking and processing. The simplest question we can answer soon is whether it is all an act — whether they act all cute and stuff to get food, or is there something more than that.
But do we really want to open that can of dog food? What if it is all an act?! Will that shatter the illusion necessary for us to bond deeply with our dogs? Don't we want to keep believing our pooches are filled with complex emotions and a deep understanding of why we are the best owners in the world? Do you really want to know definitively that your dog is just using you for treats? I mean, on some level, we all already understand that, but we allow ourselves to believe that dogs care about us beyond just our ability to give them bones. So even if it is revealed that dogs are just wagging their tails at us because they know our arrival home means good things for them, it probably won't change our brain's interpretation of the events. ("This dog loves me! I must be so wonderful!") On the other hand, maybe the MRIs will show that dogs do genuinely care for us for who we are, independent of the food and shelter we can provide them, and that will move us to love them even more deeply than we already do, which will no doubt result in even more treats and long walks and belly rubs than we're already giving. Those sneaky pups—they get us every time.