Canine fMRI Scans: The Future Is Bright (Unless You're a Celebrity Dog Trainer) - The Optimal Dog - The Optimal Dog

Canine fMRI Scans: The Future Is Bright (Unless You’re a Celebrity Dog Trainer)

Canine fMRI Scans: The Future Is Bright (Unless You’re a Celebrity Dog Trainer)

One reason why celebrity dog trainers and other self-appointed “experts” are so quick to tell you what your dog is thinking or feeling is this: it’s difficult to prove them wrong.

As you may have noticed, dogs can’t communicate verbally.  So they’re never going to explicitly tell us what’s going on inside their heads.  Instead, when trying to determine what dogs are thinking or feeling, we’ve largely had to settle for the inexact science of observing their outward non-verbal behaviors and making quasi-logical inferences about what those behaviors suggest about their internal mental states.

Sometimes that process gives up easy answers.  Heavy salivation and a transfixed gaze locked on the steak you just removed from the grill? That’s desire.  Hackles raised, ears forward, low growl? That’s probably some variant of anger or fear.

Emotions like these are easy to identify because they portend other outward behaviors for which the only reasonable precedent is the subject emotion.  If the dog steals the steak and gobbles it down then it’s eminently reasonable to conclude that it desired the food.  The dog hasn’t explicitly told us so, but there are few other logical explanations for the behavior.

This type of judgment-making process is less dependable, however, when the subject emotions are subtle or complex or when the outward behavior is ambiguous.  If the corners of a dog’s mouth are drawn back and its front-facing teeth are exposed, similar to the attributes of a human smile, is she happy and content?

Well, it’s tough to know for sure.  On the one hand, it has been proven that mice express subjective pain through facial expressions that are remarkably similar to human facial expressions.  On the other hand, what about the significant biological differences between the facial structures of dogs and humans? Or the differences between canine social behavior and human social behavior (and the differing consequences of outward emotional displays therein)? These kinds of variables muddy the waters and prevent us from making clear and irrefutable judgments about just what our dogs are thinking and feeling.

The problem is that these ambiguous situations occur with far greater frequency than the clear-cut ones because most emotions and thought processes aren’t of the simple one-cause, one-effect variety.  Moreover, our natural tendency to anthropomorphize ensures that we’re likely to over-diagnose common human thoughts and feelings in our canine counterparts.

In other words, in the significant majority of situations, making judgments about what a dog’s outward behavior indicates about its internal experience amounts to little more than guesswork.  And that’s not overreaching.  Indeed, some of the most intelligent folks to have ever considered the issue have said, in one way or another, that we humans can know almost nothing about what the internal experiences of other animals are like.

Nevertheless, such judgments are the primary stock and trade of celebrity dog trainers. Such folks are never at a loss for words when asked to explain canine behavior through reference to internal experiences.  Just recall the last time you watched a celebrity trainer waltz into a home, observe a misbehaving dog for a few brief moments, and then begin spouting off her opinions about which internal thoughts and feelings are “causing” the animal to act the way it does (at which point, of course, she probably tried to sell your something).

These folks justify their claims about the internal thoughts and emotions of dogs by highlighting their years of experience observing canine behavior, their widespread fame, their history of successfully “rehabilitating problem dogs,” or some other credential that may sound impressive, but is logically unrelated to the core question of how do we know what the dog is thinking or feeling?

Even though such justification-by-resume doesn’t prove anything, lesser beings like ourselves will never be able to match it.  And, of equal importance, when it comes to figuring out what our dogs are thinking or feeling, we’re bound by the same restrictions as our celebrity counterparts.  So, while the truth is that they can’t read our dogs’ minds; unfortunately, we can’t either.

The inevitable result, like I said before, is we can’t prove them wrong and their fame and credentials win the day in any argument over the legitimacy of their judgments.

At least that’s been the case until now.

That’s because cognition researchers at Emory University (my proud alma mater) have finally begun turning functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners on canine brains.   Their early findings suggest that some mouth-watering stuff is on the way for anyone fascinated by what really goes on between the ears of our canine side-kicks.

The charge is being lead by Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D., Emory’s Distinguished Professor Neuroeconomics, Director of its Center for Neuropolicy, and author of award-winning books such as Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment (Henry Holt & Co., 2005) and Iconoclast: What Neuroscience Reveals About How to Think Differently (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).  Dr. Berns has made a distinguished career out of using brain imaging technologies to understand human motivation and decision-making, among other topics.

And now he’s turning his attention to dogs.  Dr. Berns and his colleagues are the world’s first researchers to use functional MRI technology to examine the brains of completely awake, unrestrained canines.

The technology at the heart of their experiments — functional MRI scanning – is one of the most powerful tools in the modern neuroscientist’s kit and the source of many of the most important brain science discoveries of the past twenty years. Because changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation in the brain are closely linked to neural activity, a functional MRI scanner approximates brain activity by detecting changes in a subject’s blood flow. In other words, using functional MRI scans, researchers can map neural activity by determining which regions are being activated in response to specific stimuli.  And because we already know a lot about what the various regions of the brain are used for, mapping neural activity can tell us a whole lot about the specific thoughts and feelings being generated inside a subject.

Functional MRI technology has been used extensively with humans and other primates over the past twenty years. But dogs have presented a unique challenge to researchers because fMRI subjects must remain perfectly still throughout the duration of the scan in order for the machine to take accurate readings.

And dogs, bubbly little hair-balls that they are, have trouble remaining motionless.  As Dr. Berns and his associates explained in a paper documenting their preliminary research findings:

“The main challenge of fMRI in dogs comes from subject motion.  Historically, the usual approach has been to either anesthetize the animal or, as in rats and monkeys, immobilize them.  Clearly, if we wish to understand canine cognition, anesthesia is not an option.  Immobilization is technically possible, although ethically objectionable for a dog, and, as we show, unnecessary to acquire useful fMRI data.”

The reason that the dogs in Dr. Berns’s experiments didn’t need to be immobilized or anesthetized is he and his colleagues simply — you guessed it — trained them (click here for a video showing how).  Using cues and positive reinforcement, the researchers trained a two year-old feist and a three year-old border collie to remain perfectly still throughout the duration of the scans.  While in the scanners, the researchers ran simple hand-signal/reward experiments where specific hand-signals preceded food rewards and others did not.

The scans revealed, as expected, that the caudate sections of the brains of both dogs “lit up” with activation in response to the signals associated with rewards.  This finding itself was not surprising (as Dr. Berns and his colleagues explained – “had [it] not been observed, one could rightfully question the feasibility of canine fMRI”), but the fact that the experiments yielded readable scans and useful data at all is hugely encouraging for the prospects of further studies.

As Dr. Berns explains, “[w]e now have the tools to see how [dogs] see us.  We  can see the things activating in their heads that our hominid ancestors selected from the dogs’ wolfen brethren.  And now we can see it from the dog’s perspective.  Now we can begin to answer questions like: can dogs map human emotions on their own feelings, in other words, do they have empathy? How much language do they understand?”

Yummy.  To a skeptic like me, those prospects sound absolutely delicious.  To a quasi-scientific celebrity dog trainer who claims to already know how dogs think, maybe not so much.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

– Coach Dan


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