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Dogs have long been considered as mans best friend, and new research shows that a relationship like that is totally possible for more reasons than we might initially think. As many dog owners have indicated, canines often appear to understand the emotional side of what is being said to them or projected towards them when a person is talking or even gazing at them in a certain way. While our feelings around this seem pretty clear, what does science say about all of this?

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Unprecedented brain scanning research done recently indicates that our feelings around this are likely true and that this ability pre-dates domestication.

Previous MRI research done on canines revealed that dogs are about as conscious as human children. This is not the first time dogs have been studied in an MRI scanner. Gregory Burns, a neuroeconomics professor, studied and analyzed the canine caudate nucleus to determine his findings. This region of the brain is found in both humans and dogs and is associated with the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and material things. Given our feelings and this prior study, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that dogs in fact do have the capability to understand the emotional content behind what we are saying to them.

The Study: 11 Dogs, 22 Humans, and 200 Sounds

dog_mriheadAn experiment conducted by lead researcher Attila Andics from the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest explored the possibility of whether or not dogs were capable of fully understanding what we say to them.

The new study published in the journal Current Biology is the first to explore the neurological relationship between humans and non-primate species. The dogs were initially taken through 12 training sessions where they were provided positive reinforcement while being trained  to stay in one spot for about 8 – 10 minutes, as that is how long it takes to complete the MRI and the subject must be motionless. The dogs were then given headphones to muffle the loud sounds that MRI’s produce. The headphones also acted as the means by which researchers would deliver the 200 audio samples required for the experiment.

The sounds were used to touch the parts of the canine’s auditory cortex which is the area responsible for processing acoustic information. The sound samples included environmental noises, like car sounds and whistles, human sounds (but not words), and dog vocalizations (like barking and growling).

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To compare the neurological data, 22 humans were subject to the same MRI with the same sounds.

The Brain Data

scansAfter analyzing the scans researchers discovered that the temporal pole, the most anterior region of the temporal lobe, was highly active in both the humans and dogs when human voices were heard during the sound sampling of the MRI.

What is fascinating is that seeing this area of the brain come alive in dogs while hearing human voices means they have a similar ability to connect to human voices as humans do. Considering this part of the brain is thought to process incoming sounds, giving rise to emotional responses, it is likely that the dogs are able to understand the emotional content behind what is said to them, much in the same way humans do as the brain is processing this information to do so. This is the first time scientists have observed this in a non-primate.

Have you ever heard of the secret life of plants? Basically research showed that plants and even other animals can feel each other suffer even at long ranges. Interestingly, during this experiment when emotional sounds of humans crying or dogs whimpering or barking angrily were heard, it activated an area in the primary auditory cortex in both humans and dogs. This suggests that dogs and humans process sound information and feel the emotions behind it in a very similar way.

Dogs Can Feel Feelings

So what did we figure out here? Dogs can feel the feelings of their owners and other humans around them, or at least that is strongly suggested by this study. It was noted that dogs brains did light up a lot more when hearing other canine sounds versus human sounds and they also responded very highly to environmental sounds -much less than humans did. This suggests it’s possible that human brains might be hardwired to selectively disregard peripheral noise and instead just focus on human vocals, but this remains to be proven.

Finally, an interesting comment from the authors: “Although parallel evolution cannot be excluded, our findings suggest that voice areas may have a more ancient evolutionary origin than previously known.”

Our Relationship With Animals

It’s my guess that we will continue to find out a lot more about our similarities and connections, in more ways than we can imagine, to animals (as well as our environment.) We typically think physically all the time, i.e. what do our actions directly do to our external world or what do we feel when we say something to someone. But I think that we are now within the realms of exploring what our thoughts, emotions, feelings and intentions also do. I think we are also starting to realize scientifically something that many of us have felt for a very long time, we are connected to and affect our world around us on levels far beyond just the physical realm. In fact, I think we will realize very soon that our mentality of being superior here on earth is quite backwards and destructive, as in essence we are equal with everything here. As these realizations and shifts in human consciousness continue to take place, a change in the way we treat our environment and animals will change drastically as it will no longer make sense not only in our hearts but in our minds as well.


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