In news that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever known a dog, a new study has found that dogs may understand us in the same way humans do.
In the first study to compare brain function between humans and a nonprimate animal, researchers found that man’s best friends have dedicated voice areas in their brains, just like us. And according to the news release, in the same way we are sensitive to the acoustic cues of emotion, so are they.
The findings offer fresh a perspective into the unique alliance between humans and our canine companions. Further, it helps shed light on the behavioral and neural mechanisms that have made this relationship so strong throughout many millennia.
"Dogs and humans share a similar social environment," says Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. "Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species."
The research team used 11 dogs that had been trained to lay still in an fMRI brain scanner, allowing the researchers to run the same neuroimaging experiment on both dog and human participants. (This was a first.) They played nearly 200 dog and human sounds — from playful laughs and barks to whining and crying — and captured both dogs' and humans' brain activities throughout.
The results show that dog and human brains include voice areas in similar locations. In both groups, an area near the primary auditory cortex lit up more with happy sounds than unhappy ones. Andics says they were most struck by the common response to emotion across species.
But before you replace your therapist with your dog, you should know there were differences, too. In dogs, almost half of all sound-sensitive brain regions responded more strongly to sounds rather than voices. In humans, only 3 percent of sound-sensitive brain regions showed greater response to sounds rather than voices.
Nonetheless, the findings confirm what many of us already know — and it’s a great step in understanding why dogs seem so remarkably empathetic to their owners or the other people they spend time with.
"This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs," Andics says. "At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment."
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