Dr. Gregory Berns is on a mission to find out if our dogs love us … or if we just hope they do. The Emory University-based neuroscientist, usually concerned with the ins and outs of the human brain, embarked on a project to study that of the canine, hoping to understand how our dogs love us on the way.
Berns was inspired to study dogs after the passing of his favorite dog, Newton, he says in a talk at TEDxAtlanta. “After he passed away, I thought, ‘I have these MRI machines that I’ve used to test human decision-making and what motivates people. Why haven’t we used this on other animals?” This question led him to embark on a scientific journey to find out how dogs think, how they love us, and even how their personalities and decision-making differs.
“With animals, we don’t know what they’re thinking, so we are left with observing their behavior,” he says. “This is the foundation of behaviorism, and it’s been around since Pavlov. But there are some tricky things with this, and as humans, we tend to anthropomorphize everything. It is in this area that I became intrigued with figuring out what dogs are thinking, by using MRI.”
The challenge was to get dogs to willingly sit in an MRI machine, Berns says, long enough to test their mental activity and responses to different scenarios. Not only did the dogs have to sit still in the machine, says Berns, but they also had to remain still during the brain scanning, which can be extremely loud.
How did Berns and his team manage to make the dogs comfortable and interested in the MRI experience? Lots of practice with a pretend machine, as well as a custom-made chin rest to lay their heads on, ear muffs to protect their ears and presence of their trainers and familiar faces.
Berns’s research, though still in progress, focuses on understanding the reward system of the canine brain, and how that reward system functions in interactions with humans. For example, when a dog in an MRI machine is given a hot dog to eat, the area of the brain associated with rewards lights up. A simple fact, but it begs many questions: Does this brain activation have to do with the person who gave them the hot dog? Does that matter? What else triggers a dog’s reward system? A belly scratch? A human voice?
Berns’ research has begun to indicate that the reward process in the brain that is activated when dogs anticipate a reward is quite similar to the way dogs react when they sense a familiar human’s smell.
“One of the things we found is that the rewards system activates when a dog smells a familiar human, even when the human isn’t there,” he says. “It shows that dogs have representations of our identities that persist when we are not there.
“When people ask me if dogs miss us when we are gone, I have to say yes, because we find evidence that they are remembering their humans… and that it is associated with the reward responses.”
Berns has also found that for most dogs, it doesn’t matter if the person doing a reward-triggering action like giving a hot dog is familiar or unfamiliar — the expectation of hot dogs or any other food reward is enough to cause excitement in a dog’s brain.
“For example, my dog Callie had a much greater response in that part of the brain when a stranger gave the signal, or a computer, as opposed to me,” Berns jokes. “Other dogs in the project could have the opposite pattern, where the owners elicited a stronger brain response [than a stranger]. This provides us with a neuro-biomarker of a dog’s personality profile,” he explains.
Hot dogs, real dogs, and love aside, we are excited to see what else Dr. Berns learns about the ways dogs think, feel and love.