fMRI Reveals How Dogs Process Words

  • Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see how dogs understand human words. 
  • They showed that dogs can differentiate between words they have heard before and those they haven’t.

What does human word mean to dogs? How do they understand what their owners are saying? Many dog owners believe that their dogs understand some words, but there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support this fact.

Researchers at Emory University wanted to extract the data from dogs themselves rather than believing their owners. Therefore, they used brain imaging to understand how dogs process words and relate them to specific objects.

The study indicates that dogs can differentiate between words they have heard before and those they haven’t. They have a basic neural representation of what the word (that has been taught) actually means or what does it signifies.

Some previous studies also suggest that dogs rely on numerous signals to follow a verbal command, like gesture, gaze, and even owners’ emotional expressions. In this study, researchers only focused on what goes inside a dog’s brain when he tries to understand and differentiate between words.

The Experiment

Researchers studied 12 dogs of different breeds. They were trained (by their owners) to enter the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine and remain steady during the scan. They were also taught to fetch two different items (of different textures) based on their names.

During the training period, owners instructed their dogs to retrieve one of the items and for every correct guess, dogs were rewarded with praise or food. After the end of one-month training, all dogs were able to discriminate between the two items.

Each of these dogs lay in the scanner (one-by-one) while their owner stood in front of them and instructed them to pick an item (toy) at set intervals. For instance, one of the owners said name associated with each toy – ‘monkey’ and ‘piggy’.

Reference: Frontiers Neuroscience | doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00737 | Emory University

The scan showed a spike in neural activity when the owner spoke gibberish like ‘bodmick’ and ‘bobbu’. This was quite surprising because researchers expected to see dogs neurally differentiate between words that they heard before and words that were new to them.

brain imaging shows how dogs process words Image credit: Gregory Berns

This is exactly opposite of human neural activity: people usually show greater response(s) for known words than gibberish.

Possible Reason Behind Dog’s Strange Neural Activity

According to the researchers, the scans showed higher neural activity for novel words because dogs play closer attention to new words: they sense their owners are saying something and they try to follow the command in order to please owners and perhaps receive food or praise.

6 dogs showed heightened activity for gibberish in the parietotemporal cortex, a region that may be similar to human’s angular gyrus. This part of the brain processes lexical differences. Whereas, the other 6 dogs showed increased activation in other brain areas, including the caudate nucleus, thalamus, and amygdala.

Such differences could be the result of different breeds, sizes, and variations in dogs’ cognitive abilities. They could have varying motivation and capacity for understanding and learning human phrases.

Read: Neuroscientists Kept Pig Brains Alive With No Body Parts

Other studies showed that dogs pay more attention to smell and visual signals than to words. From a dog’s perspective, a visual cue may be more expressive, helping them learn things quicker.

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