Those are the words of neuroscientist Gregory Burns. Burns wrote those words in a New York Times article after having spent two years studying the brain activity of calm, unrestrained dogs in MRI scanners. After all that time, his “one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.”
Burns and his colleagues wanted to apply modern neuroscience to see what they could learn about what dogs were thinking and feeling. With this as their task, they adopted a bit of a different approach to studying the dogs than is often taken in animal research: “We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.”
Dogs were gradually trained to feel comfortable sitting still in the M.R.I machines, wearing ear protection to protect them from the noise the scanners generate. They tested how their furry volunteers responded neurologically to hand signals indicating food, and to the scent of familiar humans and dogs.
The results should hardly surprise anyone who has spent much time with dogs: they found that the dog brains were responding much the way human brains do when anticipating reward or experience love or affection. Specifically, they looked at activity in the region known as the caudate nucleus, an area in humans which is recognized for playing a central role in memory and emotion. As the author notes:
Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
This study, and others like it, should fundamentally alter the way that we, as a society, interact not only with dogs but with all other sentient beings with whom we share the planet. As the author points out, much of the research done on animal cognition or emotion is based purely on behaviorism — that is to say, on observations of how an animal acts or reacts in certain contexts.
While it’s important that we pay attention to how animals are actually acting (they communicate so much through their behavior, after all), this kind of neurological research shows us how animal studies are often lacking. Scientists, afraid of being accused of anthropomorphism, frequently have a tendency to avoid ascribing emotional states to their test subjects, describing their behavior instead in mechanistic or “neutral” terms. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that much of the research into animal behavior is specifically targetted towards “production animals” and is funded and influenced by the animal farming industry.
Studies that look at the actual brain activity in animals reminds us that, while we may be able to better understand and communicate our own emotional states, non-human animals are also capable of experiencing these same emotions.
And why shouldn’t they? Our emotional states are so basic to our functioning and our existence, so central to what we are as organisms. They are obviously deeply rooted in our biological background. Why should we not expect that other creatures which have evolved to live on the same planet with us would have the capacity for similar cognitive states?
The answer to that is, probably, that it is easier for us to forgive ourselves and to justify our treatment of other beings by reassuring ourselves that we alone possess the capacity for subjective experience, consciousness, sentience, a soul, or however else we want to talk about whatever it is that makes us more than mere things: that which makes us not human, but people.
As Burns says in the NY Times piece: “It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.” Well, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore those questions.
Science is now confirming what we should all known all along: we are not the only animals on this Earth with the capacity for emotions. We aren’t the only ones who care, who want, who fear, who hurt, and who play. What sets us apart is not our ability to feel — indeed, as a species we seem to be capable of remarkable displays of callousness. What sets us apart is our ability adapt our environment and to shape the world around us.
Too often this unique human characteristic is destructive when it could be life-affirming. Too often it is extractive when it could be creative, exploitative when it could be transformative. When we stop treating other creatures and the planet itself as things to be used up and begin instead to treat them with respect and dignity, then we can create a world that is better for all people — both the furry and the bald.