More or less human: How can a dog brain imaging study and companion animal neuroscience explain my human-ness?

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” Berns said. “As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”—Greg Berns, MD, PhD

Recently, the Emory laboratory of Dr. Greg Berns published the first fMRI brain imaging study in unanesthetized dogs.  Popular media reports of the study touting, “What is your dog thinking?” and “Brain Scans Reveal Dogs’ Thoughts” have raised the hackles of the public who ask, “Why conduct a frivolous scientific study on something we already know?”

A closer inspection of the actual study publication reveals a simpler and still significant result: The study serves as an experimental “proof of principle”, establishing a model precedent for future dog cognition studies. As a neuroscientist, I view this recent dog brain imaging study as opening a new realm of possibilities for research, not only on dog cognition, but also on the evolution of social behavior in humans and with non-human animals that have come to define our human-ness.
FMRI representations of neurological activity produced by reward anticipation in the brains of Callie and McKenzie. Image: Berns et al./SSRN--pulled from Wired
Dog imaging research in unanesthetized, cooperating dogs is quite frankly, brilliant for 3 reasons that I will describe below.

Importantly, the timing of this research is impeccable. With mounting trends against animal researchers, especially those who engage in non-human primate research, the public is calling for different studies where animals aren’t held captive in unnatural environments for research (some neuroscience experts are even advocating that we utilize human models, especially for research on psychiatric disorders).  In fact, not only are these studies non-invasive and call for the dogs’ “voluntary” cooperation (the dogs were trained 8 months prior to actually enter and sit still in a scanner with custom sound-blocking headphones), the dogs are also considered, as stated by the authors, to be more at home in the research setting: Dogs are human’s oldest domesticated animal and have evolved to be quite “natural” in a human-dominated environment. In addition, the scientific research community, along with many humanities scholars, is now building a case that non-human animals have traits such as empathy, traits that were previously (perhaps almost sacredly) privileged to humans.

Callie was trained to enter the scanner with headphones and sit still during the scans.

Berns and colleagues took special care with these studies, seeking advice from the Institutional Review Board (IRB, which reviews human research protocols) in addition to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC, which reviews animal research protocols), treating the animals basically as special, vulnerable research subjects.

Second, it’s simply en vogue to care about animals and to demonstrate principles of care about our non-human relationships, from the environment to what animals we (don't) eat. This movement in “Green Capitalism” and “Charitable Capitalism” can be seen daily, with major corporations providing sustainable products, seeing sustainability and the organic food movement, for better and/or worse, as good business.

Third, as a society, we are beginning to more routinely acknowledge the significance of our non-human relationships; even our legal policies, which reflect our temporally relevant consensus values and morals, are currently being challenged. Legal scholars and aspiring lawyers are being trained in animal personhood and animal law. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund 141 (versus 125 when I wrote about this 1 year ago) schools in the U.S. and Canada now offer courses in “Animal Law”.
Scholars like Donna Haraway, author of the Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, believe that our relationship with dogs is simultaneously a “historical aberration” and a “natural cultural legacy”. Haraway argues that dogs and humans not only co-habit our worlds but also co-evolved with us to develop a sophisticated cross-species social existence.

Donna Haraway, a brilliant scholar. You should read all of her books.
In particular, she is interested in examining, “How might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously?” And more pointedly, she and many scholars are troubled by imbalances of “bio-power” and “bio-sociality” wherein “Man makes himself the hero in the greatest story ever told” and human relationships with dogs are rarely viewed beyond a “caninophilic narcissm”, an illusion that one’s dog is a source of unconditional love for its owner.

Several researchers have noted that dogs and other furry creatures have a track record of benefiting human health and well being of children, the elderly, and those with and without disabilities. But rather than viewing domesticated dogs as simply a technology invented by humans-- which she argues is a unidirectional view of agency-- Haraway suggests a broader view which acknowledges the existence of multiple directions of agency where dogs and humans co-create and co-constitute our lives, partners in creating our society as we know it.

Loukanikos aka "Riot Dog"": Stray dog that joined demonstrators in Athens, Greece.
What is to be gained by exploring this view with Haraway?  Haraway says that companion animals are “one instance in a story field of what makes us human”.  Companion animals in a sense aren’t just a commodity or piece of property for us, a technology that humans made. Animal domestication and our lives with non-human animals (and perhaps other non-human entities) actually makes us who we are as humans.  Our identities, be it human or non-human animal, are co-created and have co-evolved with our environments and all of the entities within it. Therefore, in conceptualizing humans, we must also consider individuals as a product of their relationships, including those with animals.

But how would understanding our relationships with non-human animals affect our world-view and our practices and what does this relationship mean for society?

Read more about this in comparative religion scholar, Thomas Kasulis's work.  I recommend his book, Intimacy or Integrity.
Dr. Bern’s studies offer us an opportunity to explore some powerful lines of research to illuminate human experiences. These lines of research, some of which have been proposed by psychologists such as Gail Melson, have not yet been considered in the light of recent brain imaging studies. Nonetheless, these topics could be explored with neuro-imaging.

First, we could explore humans and animals as interdependent systems: How do companion animals and their owners mutually reinforce and modify one another’s behavior and what are the neurological bases of this reinforcement and behavior modification.   Second, we could explore higher-order cognitive functioning in non-human animals: How might animal research paradigms be modified to reflect growing bodies of evidence demonstrating that animals have qualities, such as empathy, that historically were privileged to humans? How might these studies impact the growing interest in legal communities to grant animals legal standing and “rights”?  For example, how might the IRB and IACUC modify regulations for on-going research to maximize welfare of research animals and maximize relevance of data acquired from these experiments? And further, what are the legal ramifications under various contexts in living with non-human animals such as companion animals, research animals, and consumed animals?

These dog brain imaging and studies of companion animal cognition are just the tip of the iceberg, opening a new world of research not a moment too soon. I believe animal studies with dogs as a model may bring very fruitful insights into understanding human and non-human alike social life. And in so doing we can have an even deeper conversation and experience in our daily lives.

In loving memory of Chino Zapata Moreno de Guevera
beloved companion, teacher, and mysterious fellow traveler 
December 14, 1997 - May 10, 2012

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2012). More or less human: How can a dog brain imaging study and companion animal neuroscience explain my human-ness?. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

References and Recommended Reading:

“Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs.” By Gregory Berns, Andrew Brooks and Mark Spivak. Public Library of Science ONE, publication date to-be-determined.

European Graduate School youtube channel: Donna Haraway Companion Animals Manifesto (2003)

Donna Haraway When Species Meet (2008) Posthumanities Volume 3

Gail Melson “Psychology and the Study of Human-Animal Relationships.” Society and Animals Volume 10 (2002) 347-352

Thomas P. Kasulis. Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Differences (2002) University of Hawai'i Press


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