Dog and human brains respond to voices similarly

Dog owners famously insist that their pets understand them, and sometimes even claim to know what they’re thinking. As it turns out, a new study suggests that they might be right.

Dog owners famously insist that their pets understand them, and sometimes even claim to know what they’re thinking. As it turns out, a new study suggests that they might be right.

If you own a dog and you feel like he is particularly in tune with your emotions, new research in Hungary has revealed that you actually might not be mad. The studies have found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does.

Similiarity in the brain

22 people and 11 dogs took part in this MRI testing to monitor brain activity when they were played the same 200 different noises including human sounds such as laughter and crying, dog vocalisations, and environmental noises such as car sounds and whistles.

It was discovered that the areas of the brain activated by these different sounds was remarkably similar in dogs and humans. They found that the same area of the brain was activated in both species when they heard a voice, whether that was a human command such as “sit” or a dog whimpering. The dogs did react much more strongly to the fellow dog sounds rather than human sounds.

Lead author of the research Attila Andics said that this is the first time that the specific location of the brain used by the dogs to recognise the sounds has been found in a non-primate and it is “the first step to understanding what makes vocal communications between dogs and humans so successful.”

It is widely accepted that dogs and humans have evolved together, beginning from the domestication of the Grey wolf tens of thousands of years ago. This research suggests that throughout this co-evolution, humans and dogs have developed ways of understanding each other through each other’s vocalisations to create stronger bonds and heights of communication.

The similarities in the voice areas in the human and canine brains also suggests that they evolved at least 100 million years ago, which was the age of the last common ancestor of humans and dogs. The origin, as with any evolutionary theory, is uncertain but intriguing.

The dogs in the study had to take part in 12 training sessions, 7 in the scanner room alone where they had to be taught to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Positive reinforcement was key to the success of the scanning, and all the dogs were happy to take part thanks to praise and lots of food rewards.

Instinct in reply

Professor Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London commented on the research, suggesting that it would be interesting to observe the animal’s response to words rather than just sounds. She proposed: “When we cry and laugh, they are much more like animal calls and this might be causing this response.”

Dogs are fascinating creatures to study, largely because of the extent of interference we have had in their development. We have selected for a lot of traits in dogs that we find amenable, such as friendliness and loyalty. Dog breeds have been fashioned over hundreds of years, but a quicker demonstration about how it worked can be seen in the experiments conducted in Russia from 1959 onwards. As a result of selective breeding, wild foxes became tamer with more dog-like features such as floppy ears and wagging tails.

Many dogs learn a lot of words in their lifetime, and they are one of the few creatures that can understand pointing at an object, rather than just looking at their owner’s finger.

The MRI study is the first step towards more of an understanding of the way our dogs tune into our feelings, and we can begin to understand how they look at us and navigate themselves in our social environments. Further studies will reveal more about the extent of understanding of the noises that dogs hear, and what they mean.

Next time you’re with your best canine friend and talking to him, don’t feel like you’re going crazy. He might just understand more of what you’re saying than you think.

What do you think of this study? Have your say in the comments section below.