By Prarthana Mitra
Last year, Hollywood maverick Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs depicted the lives of sentient talking dogs in an animated reality. However, that may not be too far from the truth, as it turns out, there’s a perfectly scientific reason why dogs are man’s best friend.
According to a recent study by scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, dogs can understand human language, its rhythm, vocabulary and syntax, better than was suspected earlier. The study also posits that they comprehend and process speech in the same way humans do, and in the same part of the brain.
Published in Frontiers in Neuroscience journal, the study aimed at a scientific analysis of their cognitive abilities, using brain imaging to understand how they imbibe the words we teach them or associate words with objects. The first author of the study Ashley Prichard told the Asian Age, “Many dog owners think their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that. We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves – not just owner reports.”
Treasure hunt with a purpose
A group of 12 dogs of various breeds were trained to lie below a functional MRI scanner to analyse their grey matter.
They were tasked with finding and fetching two toys, one soft and the other hard, based on the names of these objects. The dogs seemed to be able to discriminate between the two, the right parts of their brain lit up in response to the right words, while different regions of the brain responded when the researchers uttered gibberish. Interestingly, the scanner registered greater activity in the auditory regions when ‘novel words’ were uttered.
At the very least, dogs can distinguish new words from those they have already learnt and heard before, concluded the study while making no imperative statement on human language being the best mode of communication between pet owners and dogs.
Brownie points for extra effort
According to study author and neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words, but they appear to have a neural representation (visual system) to make sense of the words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.
“What is surprising is the result is opposite to that of research on humans – people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words,” Prichard added. The heartwarming bottom line of this entire exercise, however, is that our beloved canines actually put in extra effort to understand what we are trying to communicate because they think it is what we want, and perhaps also for praise or food.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qirus.
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