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Brain scans show that dogs are as conscious as human children

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By specially training dogs to lie motionless in an fMRI scanner, neuroscientists have finally taken a look inside the mind of our favorite companion animal. And to no dog lover’s surprise, they exhibit a level of awareness that will force us to reconsider the ways in which they’re treated.

There’s a provocative and fascinating opinion article in the New York Times by neuroeconomics professor Gregory Burns where he describes his latest work studying dogs. After training and scanning the brains of dozens of them, he says he’s left with the inescapable conclusion that “dogs are people, too.


Unlike behavioral analyses, Burns’s work is providing actual neurological evidence that dogs, like so many other animals, experience consciousness and emotions at a level comparable to humans. He did so after training dogs (with the help of Mark Spivak) for months to be comfortable inside fMRI scanners — and having them wear earmuffs to protect their sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.


After analyzing the scans, he was struck by the similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region called the caudate nucleus. Burns explains:

Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

Indeed, we should work to minimize their suffering, he argues, while also proposing a sort of limited personhood for those animals who exhibit neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. “We can no longer hide from the evidence,” he says. By granting them this personhood status, it would work to prevent puppy mills, laboratory dogs, and dog racing.


Be sure to read Burns’s entire article as there’s lots more.

Image: Shutterstock/Ksenia Raykova.