Wednesday, August 31, 2016

If my dog could speak ...

... what would he say? Probably lots but could we understand him? Probably not, according to the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who famously wrote “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” The reason is both phenomenally simple and psychologically profound. Animals' perception-action worlds are quite different from our own. If you doubt that, try keeping your nose to the trail for an hour or so - while locomoting on all fours.

So how do we find out what's on the animal mind? The Washington Post has a revealing report on research done on dogs that were trained to lay down for several minutes in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while their trainer uttered various words in various intonations.

It had already been established that dogs respond to human voices better than their wolf brethren, are able to match hundreds of objects to words and learn elements of grammar, and can be directed by human speech. But the new findings mean dogs are more like humans than was previously known: They process language using the same regions of the brain as people, according to the researchers, whose paper was published in Science.

This had already been demonstrated in studies that observed dogs, but no one had seen how it works inside the canine brain. To determine this, Attila Andics and colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest recruited 13 family dogs — mostly golden retrievers and border collies — and trained them to sit totally still for seven minutes in an fMRI scanner that measured their brain activity. (The pups were not restrained, and they “could leave the scanner at any time,” the authors assured.)

A female trainer familiar to the dogs then spoke words of praise that all their owners said they used — “that’s it,” “clever,” and “well done” — and neutral, common words such as “yet” and “if,” which the researchers believed were meaningless to the animals. Each dog heard each word in both a neutral tone and a happy, atta-boy tone.

Using the brain activity images, the researchers saw that the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans. Tone, or the emotion behind the word, on the other hand, was analyzed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere — just as it is in people, the study said.

Finally, the researchers saw that the dogs’ “rewards center” — which is stimulated by pleasant things such as petting and food and sex — did the brain equivalent of jumping and yelping when positive words were spoken in a positive tone.

Next time your dog does good, try saying "good boy" in a positive tone. You might be able to save some on doggie treats. It might work on spouses too.

No comments:

Post a Comment