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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
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

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.

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

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



  1. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for this great post. One of the things I really like about The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and When Species Meet (2008) is that Haraway doesn't foreclose research with non-human animals (even lab research), but instead talks about different ways in which this research can be done more ethically and gives very concrete examples. It sounds like the research done by Berns and colleagues could serve as another example of this kind of research – thanks for sharing!



  2. Thanks for reading, Kristina. Yes, I figured you'd appreciate Donna Haraway for a variety of reasons. Her work actually resonates a lot with research I'm doing right now (on the side) on Buddhist (neuro)ethics, which actually is in line with a lot of exciting new work in relationality and object oriented ontology. This work is in contrast to a lot of the moral oughts (from an external omniopotent ethical presence) brought about in typical Western Judeo-Christian ethics versus an ethics that requires a discussion of relationality and context specific ethics. Having worked in a lab, and having had my own personal questions about how to most ethically treat research animals, I found Donna Haraway's work refreshing.


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