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Dog Days: Has neuroscience revealed the inner lives of animals?

By Ryan Purcell

Image courtesy of Pexels.
On a sunny, late fall day with the semester winding down, Emory neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns gave a seminar in the Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News series on campus. Berns has become relatively famous for his ambitious and fascinating work on what he calls “the dog project”, an eminently relatable and intriguing study that has taken aim at uncovering how the canine mind works using functional imaging technology.

The seminar was based on some of the ideas in his latest book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog (and other adventures in Animal Neuroscience). In it, Berns responds to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s influential anti-reductionist essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and recounts his journey to perform the world’s first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) session on an awake, unrestrained dog. Like so many seemingly impossible tasks, when broken down into many small, discrete steps, getting a dog to step into an fMRI machine and remain still during scanning became achievable (see training video here). 

In his book, Berns returns to the central question of “What it’s like to be a dog” several times and offers partial answers that hint at a bigger idea. For example, after training the dogs to exhibit restraint and delayed gratification, Berns observed a homologous brain area (the inferior frontal gyrus of the prefrontal cortex) become active that is also activated in humans when they perform an analogous task. Therefore, he suggested that while it may be a stretch to know all at once what it’s like to be a dog, we may be able to infer pieces of the canine experience. When a dog delays gratification, it feels a lot like it does for us.

A bat’s use of echolocation depends on echoes to

build a sonic map of the world around them.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Nagel chose to write about bats because, in his words, they are “a fundamentally alien form of life.” To illustrate this point, he highlights how the primary sensory perception for bats as they move through the world is echolocation. On its face, echolocation does indeed seem like a completely separate sense that we humans do not possess, and would preclude our understanding of what it is like to be a bat. Berns, however, noted that while most of us do not use sonar to navigate the world, we can certainly tell the difference between the sound of our voice in a closet and in a concert hall. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that people with vision impairments can, with training, use echolocation to navigate the world. With some effort, the alien can become understandable.

Listening to the presentation I started to wonder, has a study ever found that an animal is less intelligent or less capable than we had thought? Have we – particularly scientists who conduct research with animals (like myself) – been knowingly and willfully ignorant of their conscious experience in order to avoid the really difficult questions? In the audience, Center for Ethics director Dr. Paul Root Wolpe raised the question of whether progress will mean a continued, inexorable expansion of the type of research restrictions that we now have on non-human primates into so-called “lower species.” Is an implication of Berns’ research that fundamental animal experiences are very similar to ours? Essentially, is there something special about dogs, or do they just serve as a highly trainable window into the underappreciated abilities of the animal kingdom? From what I heard, I think Berns would say yes to both—that there is in fact something special about dogs, but that they also can serve as “ambassadors” to teach us about the inner lives of animals. The way that dogs have co-evolved with humans for the past 30,000 years may make them a unique case, particularly because of our ability to work closely with them, even in a research setting.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Dr. Berns told us that, in his mind, the most subversive element of the dog project is how he tried to offer his canine participants self-determination. He explained that they were effectively treated in much the same way as if they were small children participating in research studies, granting them the right to refuse at any time. The ethicists in the room pushed back on this point – if the dogs were trained with treats, weren’t they coerced, or at least manipulated? It is difficult to know for sure. However, in the book, Berns discusses one particular dog that trained extremely quickly and made him wonder if she had any will of her own that wasn’t shaped by her owner. The dogs may have been manipulated to some degree, but they all climbed into the scanner on their own and faced no physical barriers to leaving it at any time, which is radically different from how most research animals are treated.

A significant, largely unintended consequence of this work has been its implications for animal rights. In the final chapter of his book, Berns lays out his thoughts on what the dog project means for this very issue. He acknowledges, “Neuroscience isn’t going to be able to tell us exactly what we should do, but it…will change what we know about animals’ internal experiences.” For some, the idea that there may be far more similarity in conscious experience among vertebrates than we had thought will change their personal views on the use of animals for food, clothes, and research. For others, this knowledge further muddies an already impossible problem. Perhaps it is time to finally shake off the insidious view of animals as Cartesian automatons and consider, for a change, erring on the side of assuming a bit more conscious self-awareness in animals than we have evidence for at the moment. This is easy for dogs, but what does it mean for less cuddly, more supposedly necessary creatures (e.g. cattle, chickens, lab animals, etc.)? At minimum, this could be an opportune time to remember the three R’s of animal research: replacement, reduction, refinement. Berns himself does not seem to be advocating for ending animal research or livestock production, but instead for taking a hard look at how we treat the creatures that we directly or indirectly depend on while they are in our care.

As he was wrapping up the discussion, Dr. Berns mentioned that in many ways this study tells us more about people, than dogs. Neuroethics program director Dr. Karen Rommelfanger then asked, “so has this changed how you work with human subjects?”

“Yeah.” Berns replied, with a wry smile. “I don’t anymore.”

Want to cite this post?

Purcell, R. (2018). Dog Days: Has neuroscience revealed the inner lives of animals? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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