The author of How Dogs Love Us, Gregory Berns, explains exactly what goes on:
What is it like to be a dog?
Dogs can’t talk, and we can’t transport ourselves into a dog’s mind to know what its subjective experience is. The fact is, when I see a happy golden retriever playfully jumping up and down, someone else might see a hungry dog planning to eat her for dinner, and neither of us really know what is going through the dog’s brain.
As a dog-lover and a scientist, I asked myself whether it could be possible to use brain imaging to answer a question I’d always wondered about: what can we do to better know a dog’s mind? That was the inspiration for the Dog Project, a pioneering experiment I in which I trained my own dog, and others to go into an MRI scanner whilst conscious, and which produced some exciting results.
I was able to investigate how dogs think because all mammalian brains have substantially similar parts, so a map of canine brain activation could be referenced to its human equivalent. For instance, if we saw activation in the reward center of the dog brain, that could be interpreted through human experiments that result in similar activity.
Do dogs have imaginations?
With human experiments, we have a reasonably good idea of what happened to create a particular pattern of brain activation.
We know, for example, that activity in the visual part of the brain can be caused either by photons hitting the retina or by the person mentally imagining a scene with his eyes closed. Similarly, if we observed activity in the visual part of a dog’s brain, and the dog wasn’t looking at anything, we could reasonably assume that it was forming a mental image of something. Dogs might have imaginations too!
Mapping between the brains of different species is called a functional homology. It means that a subjective experience like imagination can map onto both a human brain and a dog brain. The patterns of activity in the two brains would illustrate how to transform one type of brain into the other.
Is it actually to possible to find out what it's like to be a dog?
Philosophers dismiss the question of what it is like to be a dog as unanswerable, but I believe that functional homologies between dog and human brains could provide the missing link. Although brain imaging wouldn’t tell us what it is like for a dog to be a dog, I realised that it could provide a road map—a brain map—of what it would be like for a human to be a dog, without the bias of the human interpreter.
The whole purpose of the Dog Project was to understand the dog- human relationship from the dogs’ perspective, and the most important thing that we learned was that dogs’ brains show evidence of a theory of mind for humans. This means that they not only pay attention to what we do but to what we think, and they change their behavior based on what they think we’re thinking.
The brain-imaging results showed that dogs had mental processes substantially similar to our own. And if that is true, shouldn’t they be afforded rights similar to humans? I suspect that society is many years away from considering that proposition.
However, recent rulings by the US Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In 2010, the court ruled that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment with- out the possibility of parole.
As part of the ruling, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain is not mature at age thirteen, supporting the notion that children, even teenagers, are not fully responsible for their actions. Although this case wasn’t to do with dog sentience, the court opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom. Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.
Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, is the distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, and the author of How Dogs Love Us (Scribe) £12.99