Tag: City University of New York

The science of understanding between dogs and humans.

How our dogs process what we say to them.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post Talking to One’s Dog. Many of you stopped by and left your comments, all of which was to confirm how much speaking to your dogs (and cats) is part of normal life for you.

I finished that post writing:

Let me close by reminding all you good people of yet another wonderful aspect of the relationship between humans and dogs. In that we all know the dog evolved from the grey wolf. But had you pondered on the fact that wolves don’t bark! Yes, they howl but they do not bark.

There is good science to underpin the reason why dogs evolved barking; to have a means of communicating with us humans.

Every person who has a dog in their life will instinctively understand the meaning of most, if not all, of the barks their dog utters.

Anyway, I was going through some websites yesterday and, quite by chance, came across that science that I referred to above. It was in a Care2 article published last September and I am republishing it below.


Yes, Dogs Apparently Do Understand What We’re Saying

By: Laura Goldman, September 5, 2016

About Laura Follow Laura at @lauragoldman

You might want to start spelling out some words around your dog. According to a new study, not only do dogs comprehend what we’re trying to tell them by the tone of our voices, but they can also even understand what it is we’re saying — sort of.

Neuroscientist Attila Andics and his fellow researchers at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest discovered that just like human brains, a dog’s brain reacts to both the meaning of a word and how it is spoken. Just like us, the left hemisphere of a dog’s brain responds to meaning, while the right hemisphere responds to intonation.

The study, published August 30 in the journal Science, shows that even non-primate mammals who cannot speak can still comprehend the meanings of words in a speech-filled environment. This suggests that the ability of our brains to process words is not unique to humans, and may have evolved much earlier than previously thought.

Not only could these results help make communicating with our dogs more efficient, but the study sheds new light on the origin of words during language evolution. “What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them,” Andics said in a press release.

While previous studies have observed dogs to see how they understand us, this is the first one that took a look inside their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The 13 participants were all family pets. They included six border collies, five golden retrievers, a Chinese crested dog and a German shepherd.

To be tested, the dogs were first trained to lie still for eight minutes in the MRI machine while wearing headphones and a radio-frequency coil. (Based on the wagging tail of a Golden Retriever in the video below, this didn’t seem to bother at least one of the participants.) Their brain activity was recorded as they listened to a recording of their trainer saying, in both positive and neutral tones, words of praise – like “Good boy!” and “Well done!” – as well as neutral words like “however” and “as if.”

Not too surprisingly, the positively spoken positive words got a big reaction in the reward centers of the dogs’ brains. The positive words spoken neutrally and neutral words spoken with positive tones? Not so much.

Regardless of how they were spoken, the dogs processed the meaningful words in the left hemisphere of their brains. They processed intonation in the right hemisphere.

“There’s no acoustic reason for this difference,” Andics told Science. “It shows that these words have meaning to dogs. They integrate the two types of information to interpret what they heard, just as we do.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean dogs understand every single thing we say (although a Border Collie named Chaser understands over 1,000 words, which is pretty doggone remarkable).

Julie Hecht, a Ph.D. student studying canine behavior and cognition at City University of New York, offers this advice in Scientific American: “Before discussing this with your dog — ‘I knew you could understand me this whole time!’ — the caveat to this research is that a dog processing words — registering, ‘Ah! That’s familiar!’ — and a dog understanding words as you intend are not necessarily the same thing.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock


I have recounted this example before about how well our dogs listen to Jean and me.

For we take our dogs out for some playtime each day after our lunch. Years ago we used to chat about whether or not to have a cup of tea before taking the dogs for a walk. But pretty quickly once they heard the word “walk’ spoken aloud they were all crowding around the front door.

Then it was a case of spelling out the word: “W – A – L – K”. That lasted for, oh, two or three days.

Then it was using a variety of phrases that we thought would be meaningless to the dogs. That didn’t work!

And on and on.

Now, as soon as we are finishing up our food they are at the door. Jean and I now delay our hot drink to later on!

The most beautiful human – animal relationship in the world!

Instinctive behaviours.

We see instinct as common across all species including man, so why is so little known about it.

There was an item seen on the BBC Capital website.  It was an article about intuition:

Trusting your gut: Smart management or a fool’s errand?

by Eric Barton*

Photographer Mindy Véissid woke up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.

“That’s all I had,” she recalled.

The Manhattan resident followed her gut and went across town to Central Park. There, Véissid found three dogs jumping around in a couple of inches of new snow covering the famed park’s Great Lawn. She plopped down in the field and waited. That’s when the dogs headed right for her. She snapped off a shot just before they barrelled over her.

The picture she took that morning, of happy-looking pups charging through a cloud of snow with the New York City skyline behind them, has become one of Véissid’s calling cards, maybe her most recognisable shot. It’s a photo she would have missed if she had not trusted her gut.

“What I realised is that if I follow my heart, if I follow my feelings, I get good photographs,” Véissid said. “We try to control everything in our lives, and sometimes you have to let go.”

It wasn’t long ago that decision-by-intuition would have been regarded as little more than magical thinking or a try at luck. But research has changed that and intuition has been embraced as a key component to business decision making.

There is, however, an inherent danger to it, and blindly following your gut can be worse than ignoring it altogether. For managers, that means learning how to trust your own instincts and encouraging employees to do the same. But it also means learning to recognise when careful planning trumps sudden inspiration.

Perhaps the thing that most changed the way businesses think about inspiration was a 2008 study co-authored by Gerard Hodgkinson, professor at Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom. Hodgkinson found that intuition can be beneficial in specific circumstances. First, it’s best to rely on a gut feeling when you need to make a quick decision. Second, and this is the important part, trust your intuition only when you have extensive knowledge on the subject. In other words, the best intuition is pulled from a well of deep knowledge and expertise.

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.”

(The rest of the story may be read here.)

Wrong to republish the whole piece, however I do want to republish the closing paragraphs as they are so relevant to today’s post.

Western cultures began to embrace intuition only recently, Pigliucci said, while research suggests Southeast Asian countries have long given credit to gut feelings being a good guide to decision making. Eastern managers, for instance, are more likely to rely on hunches and give them credit for successes afterward.

After photographer Véissid learned to rely on her gut feelings, she wanted to teach others how to do it. Her class, the Art of Intuitive Photography, teaches the photography basics, but her instruction is more about following hunches.

“You can get a good photograph and it will be technically correct,” she said. “But if you follow your heart, you can take photos that can be wonderful.”

Follow BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or follow us and join the conversation about this or any other Capital story on Facebook: BBC Capital on Facebook.


* Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

To my mind, what Eric Barton has written about is not instinctive.  That is if one believes that instinct is something that is ‘hard-wired’, so to speak, into our psyche at birth, a function of our genetic heritage.

When one reflects on the start of life, ergo for all warm-blooded species that are the result of a successful copulation between the two genders of that species, then one realises that there is little functioning at birth beyond those bodily functions vital to that new life.

But if we mean by instinctive those behaviours that are subconsciously acted out while the mind is engaged on other mental processes, then that’s different.

Read that last opening paragraph again [my emphasis]:

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.

Think of when we drive a car how much of what we are doing in the ‘hand-eye’ department is being managed by our subconscious brain.  Think about the way we use a language, especially the language of our birth country.  One will immediately recognise that the brain is on auto-pilot.  Yet we were born unable to speak, or to drive a car!

Coincidentally, over at Patrice Ayme’s blog there was a post published yesterday on the same theme.  It was called Instinct is Fast Learning.  Here’s an extract:




Abstract: “Innate Knowledge” is a stupid idea. The truth is the exact opposite: KNOWLEDGE IS EVERYWHERE, OUT THERE.Knowledge is the opposite of innate. This insight has tremendous consequences on our entire prehension of the world.

(It will not escape the cognoscenti that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were partisans of innateness. And that believing in the superiority of inheritance is a necessary condition for racism, fascism, slavery, and hereditary plutocracy as fairness. That makes the likes of Chomsky and Dawkins self contradictory)

Subjective time slows down in smaller brains.

Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains. Anna Hummingbird California
Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains.  Anna Hummingbird California

Those wings go at 100 Hertz, four time the human perception limit.

Thus time is relative; just as light-clock time slows down in a fast reference frame, or in a heavy gravitational field, neurological timeslows down in a small neurology.

(Interestingly, the deepest reason for the slowing of time… boils down to the same in the Relativity case as in the Neurological one! It’s all about energy.)

A lot of ideas on instinct came from studying insects: insects seem to know all, without having studied anything. However, if insect time flows slowly, insects actually have time to learn.

And that’s rendered easier by having brains adapted to their environment. If they have only a few tricks to learn, and what looks like ten seconds for us is an hour for them, no wonder they learn lots. Thus slow in small explains how “instinct” works.

Hence behaviors one describes as “instinctive” are just fast studies. A lot of the silliness about “genes” is thus dispelled, and the mind comes on top.

It’s an essay that deserves the full reading.  This is how it closes:


Instinct As Fast Learning solves the nature-nurture problem. It also shows something else, even more important. It shows that the force of nature makes not just the force, but even the very geometry, of our minds.

(The construction of neuromorphology itself being forced by feedback from nature.)

The minds of sentient species, from bees to hummingbirds, are exquisitely tuned to be programmed by the (part of) nature they are made to respond to, all the way to the speed of time they need.

If we kill the environment, we kill out instruction set. The usual reason given to save the environment is that we would not want our descendants to live in a bad world. But what we see now is that a poor world gives poor minds, and that even time may go askew. Another, deeper than ever, reason to be a fanatical ecologist. Nature is not just our temple. Nature is where, and how, time itself is built, one neurological impulse at a time.


Patrice Ayme

On Monday, I have a sequel to this post.  It’s an insight into the conscious and unconscious skills that come from flying a glider, or sailplane in American speak!  Plus something that could just possibly be the key to mankind having a long-term sustainable future on this planet: The Power of Thinking.

But back to today.

You will recall that the item from the BBC website opened with photographer Mindy Véissid waking up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.  Too good not to miss for a blog called Learning from Dogs.

Mindy’s website is here and do go across there and browse.  You will quickly discover, for example:

we teach small sized group and private digital photography classes and workshops in fun locations throughout nyc, focusing on how to use your camera, how intuition can help guide you to images, and compositional improvement

So having given Mindy that small, but well-deserved, plug, I don’t feel too bad closing today with Mindy’s picture of those dogs running in the snow.

Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography
Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography

A coating of thought!

Evidence that supports the notion that deliberation is really rather a good idea!

In the issue of The Economist, the July 7th edition, there was a rather intriguing article from the pen of Schumpeter entitled,

In praise of procrastination

that proposes that the world of speed and instant decisions is much less efficient than giving things a decent ‘coating of thought’.

Here’s an extract from the article that makes this point,

These thoughts have been inspired by two (slowly savoured) works of management theory: an obscure article in the Academy of Management Journal by Brian Gunia of Johns Hopkins University; and a popular new book, “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay”, by Frank Partnoy of University of San Diego. Mr Gunia and his three co-authors demonstrated, in a series of experiments, that slowing down makes us more ethical. When confronted with a clear choice between right and wrong, people are five times more likely to do the right thing if they have time to think about it than if they are forced to make a snap decision. Organisations with a “fast pulse” (such as banks) are more likely to suffer from ethical problems than those that move more slowly. (The current LIBOR scandal engulfing Barclays in Britain supports this idea.) The authors suggest that companies should make greater use of “cooling-off periods” or introduce several levels of approval for important decisions.

Readers who want to read Brian Gunia’s research article may find it in full here.  Details of Frank Partnoy’s book are here.

Then the day after reading that copy of The Economist, this came into my ‘inbox’ from the Big Think website,

The Lost Art of Thinking Before You Act

Megan Erickson on July 8, 2012, 12:00 AM

What’s the Big Idea?

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek is fundamentally anti-capitalist, and yet, the man who describes himself as a “complicated Marxist” also expresses palpable irritation at the idea that capitalists are nothing more than egomaniacal psychopaths. In a recent interview with Big Think, he told us that although he’s highly critical of capitalism in his work, when asked about it in public, he’s tempted to detail all the things that are great about it.

Political critiques that don’t account for the passion of the individual capitalist are flawed, he says, because capitalism is as much an ethical as it is an economic system. “It’s not true when people attack capitalists as egotists. ‘They don’t care.’ No! An ideal capitalist is someone who is ready, again, to stake his life, to risk everything just so that production grows, profit grows, capital circulates. His personal or her personal happiness is totally subordinate to this. This is what I think Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt School thinker, had in mind when he said capitalism is a form of religion.”

There’s a video interview with Slavoj Zizek in that Big Think article that isn’t available on YouTube, so to watch that video and read the full article, do go here and enjoy!

But there are other videos of Slavoj Zizek (anyone know how to pronounce his name??) on YouTube and I selected this one as possibly being of wider interest.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues environmentally conscious consumers are desperate for simple tasks they can perform to alleviate their guilt, so they do things like purchase overpriced organic produce. Zizek also highlights Starbucks, which he suggests attracts customers by appealing to their sense of altruism.

Complete video is here – Slavoj Zizek: Catastrophic But Not Serious.  It’s over two hours long but strikes me as two hours of very educational viewing from The Graduate Center, City University of New York.


Having completed this Post, I looked for a relevant photograph to head up the article.  The one I chose came just by chance from the website of Ideas Champions, innovation consultants.  Indeed the photo came from this article Creating Time to Innovate which included this paragraph,

Aspiring innovators don’t need pep talks. They need TIME. Time to think. And time to dream. Time to collaborate. And time to plan. Time to pilot. And time to test. Time to tinker. And time to tinker again.

Fancy that!  Think I’ll go and lie down and have a good think!