We really have no clue about what’s going on in the dog’s brain.
It’s a cultural oddity that on one hand we say a dog is man’s best friend and on the other, someone we dislike is treated like a dog—and not in a nice way. While it could be argued that this is a commentary on how we treat our friends—that is, often badly—it more likely represents the fact that we don’t really know what’s going on inside a dog’s brain. Until now. Dr. Attila Andics is a neurobiologist and the lead researcher on a team that’s been mapping dogs’ brains. And the results have been astonishing. The team started by training 11 headphone-wearing dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner. Then they monitored the pooch’s brain activity while the compliant canines listened to more than 200 sounds including dog voices, human voices and environmental noise such as a ringing phone. Twenty-two human subjects also participated in the study and listened to the same sounds. To no one’s surprise, both dogs and humans responded most strongly to the voices of their own species. The team was surprised, however, to discover that dogs and people interpret voices in the same way and from the same region of the brain. It’s this “voice area” of our brains that lets us determine whether someone is happy, sad, sincere, sarcastic, or something altogether different just by hearing them. Dogs, it turns out, process voices the same way. (Both dogs and humans prefer happy sounds by a wide margin.) Scientists theorize that this is the case because 100 million years ago we had a common brain as insectivores. Though this common ancestry may not be a source of pride for us today, it does help explain how pooches and people similarly mine the “social meaning” of sound.
This is an exciting breakthrough but it’s not the only thing we have in common with dogs. Other research has yielded more amazing findings. For example, did you know that dogs laugh? Or that pooches have a sense of fair play? We now know that dogs have the emotional capacity of a 2½ year-old human. They exhibit love, shyness, joy, anger, fear, disgust, contentment, distress and excitement just like a toddler. But the best part is that unlike children, they do it all by the time they’re six months old. What’s more, by that time they’re responsive to direction, “potty” trained and can even do amusing tricks. No disrespect to our species intended, but how many 2½ year olds can do all that! What’s more, since dogs stop developing emotionally at this point they never develop the capacity for shame, pride, guilt or contempt. That means your dog will never become a teenager and be proud of the fact that they find you—and adults in general—embarrassing and contemptible. True, your dog will never feel guilt over taking the car without permission, but what’s the likelihood your four-footed friend would do that anyway?
Dogs, it seems, have a lot going for them and the more we learn the more we understand why they’re our best friend. No matter how much of a hash we make of the day, our pooch is always glad to see us. They’re happy when we’re happy. They share our joy and excitement in equal measure. When we’re stressed they calm us down and when we’re sad, they buck us up. Who would have ever though that Fido could be a role model but that’s just what’s happened. The lesson is simple—we should treat our dogs like good friends. And we should follow the golden rule: do unto others as dogs do unto you. —Ebert