Neuroscientist uses MRI scans to show that dogs have emotions similar to humans

Man’s best friend may have more in common with his or her human owners than previously thought.

For the past two years, neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University has been conducting a series of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on canines – including his pet terrier Callie – and he says his findings show that dogs have the same capacity to experience emotions, such as love and attachment, as humans.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Berns argued that this emotional aptitude must mean that “dogs are people, too,” and they should be afforded many of the same rights as people.

Because dogs cannot speak, Berns said that scientists have relied on behavioral observations to better understand what dogs are thinking.  This can be tricky, since researchers cannot truly comprehend why a dog performs a certain action or how the dog feels about it.

“By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, MRIs can tell us about dogs’ internal states,” Berns argued in The New York Times.

Along with his friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, Berns trained his dog Callie and other canine volunteers to enter the MRI scanner in order to measure the dogs’ brain responses to two hand signals.  Through these tests, Berns noted a striking similarity between dogs and humans in a region of the brain called the caudate nucleus – an area associated with anticipation of things people enjoy.

“… Many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate,” Berns wrote in The New York Times. “Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.”

Because of this finding, Berns said it’s possible that dogs experience a level of sentience comparable to human children, suggesting that people should reconsider how they think of their pets.

“Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings,” Berns wrote in The New York Times.

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