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Man's best friend: Neuroscience proves that it's not barking mad

For some, it will come as long-overdue proof that man’s best friend is in fact the most sympathetic listener out there.

For others, it will just sound barking mad.

A new study into dogs’ brains has found that dogs respond to voices in the same ways their owners do. Like humans, dogs have the brain systems necessary to make sense of vocal sounds, and to process their emotional content.

Attila Andics, of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, trained six golden retrievers and five border collies to lie inside a scanner. He asked 22 human volunteers to do the same, with considerably less training.

Both human and canine volunteers were played 200 different sounds. These included a range of human emotional sounds – laughing and crying, but no talking – and similar dog sounds, such as whining and playful barking.

The resulting scans showed that a similar region in the brain was activated when both dogs and people heard human voices.

Unsurprisingly, the voice-processing area of the human brain responded most to human voices. The corresponding area of dogs’ brains responded to dog sounds. But, in both animals, the activity in these regions changed in similar ways in response to the emotional tone of the sound. Both dogs and people were affected by crying humans and whining canines.

“We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners, and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog,” Dr Andics said. “But now we begin to understand why this can be.”

Similar activity has previously been observed in the brains of monkeys, which last shared a common ancestor with humans 30 million years ago. But this is the first time that such responses have been observed in the brain of a non-primate. Humans and dogs shared a common ancestor 100 million years ago.

Dr Andics believes that his new finding will unleash new possibilities. “It’s not only dogs and humans,” he said. “We probably share this function with many other mammals.”

But others believe that Dr Andics is barking up the wrong tree. Monique Udell, of Oregon State University, points out that one cannot assume that dogs and humans experience sounds in the same way, just because they exhibit similar brain activity. “We should take care to recognise and value the unique perceptual and emotional worlds of each species,” she said.

And Clive Wynne, of Arizona State University, believes that the findings do not necessarily indicate evolutionary similarities: “The brain is a highly plastic organ, and the dogs’ responses could just be the result of a lifetime listening to human voices,” he said.

Questions for your class:

  1. What is an MRI machine? Do you know what uses it has?
  2. Why were the scientists surprised by their findings?
  3. In your opinion, is this kind of research important? Explain your answer.
  4. Humans have had pets all through history. Why might this be?

Resources TES Connect:

Inside the brain

This richly informative magazine article from the Wellcome Trust is presented in a teen-friendly way and provides plenty of juicy facts about the brain.

Neurone pathways

Learn all about the way messages are transmitted around the brain and body with this interesting video.

Our beautiful brains

Introduce some of the key principles behind our most mysterious organ with these extensive resources.

Brain development

Challenge your students with this high-level brain development lesson with emphasis on scientific research.

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