Tag: Functional magnetic resonance imaging

The knowing of dogs.

A fascinating study on human empathy strikes a chord with man and dog, perhaps.

Let me start with a true account from the evening of Monday, 19th August.

That evening, at 7pm, I had an appointment with my doctor in Grants Pass.  Jean stayed at home looking after our guests and preparing the evening meal.

The journey from the doctor’s clinic back to home, a distance of 20 miles, takes a little over half-an-hour.  The last 3 miles are along Hugo Road; about 6 minutes including opening and closing the gate across our driveway.

Anyway, according to Jean shortly after 8pm Pharaoh sprang up barking and went across to put his nose against one of the windows that looks out over our front drive and garden.  Jeannie looked at the clock on the kitchen wall and made a note of the time: it was 8:10pm.  She also came over to the window that Pharaoh was looking out of and searched for any reason for his outburst of barking: squirrels, deer, any kind of wildlife or other distraction.  There was none.

A little before 8:20pm Jeannie saw the headlights of my car pull up and moments later I came in through the front door.

It appeared that Pharaoh had sensed the point where I had turned into Hugo Road.

One could easily dismiss this, perhaps by thinking that Jean had unconsciously signalled to Pharaoh that I was on my way home.  But Jean had only the vaguest idea of when I might be back.

Or one could be drawn to the research undertaken by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, as this extract from a post back in May, 2011 explains.

What an amazing book this is.


I have written about Dr Rupert Sheldrake a few times on Learning from Dogs for pretty obvious reasons!  You can do a search on the Blog under ‘sheldrake’ but here are a couple of links.  Serious Learning from Dogs on January 10th, 2011 and Time for a rethink on the 14th April, 2011.

Anyway, I am now well towards the end of Sheldrake’s revised book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and it is more than fascinating.  Bit short of time just now so please forgive me if I do no more than show this video which sets out some of the background to the book.  Sheldrake’s website is here, by the way.

Anyway, what’s this all leading up to?

I can’t recall where it was that I read about a report posted on the Forbes website about the new findings of the power of human empathy.

Study: To The Human Brain, Me Is We

A new study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us.

This would seem the neural basis for empathy—the ability to feel what others feel—but it goes even deeper than that. Results from the latest study suggest that our brains don’t differentiate between what happens to someone emotionally close to us and ourselves, and also that we seem neurally incapable of generating anything close to that level of empathy for strangers.

The research revealed:

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

The findings back up an assertion made by the progenitor and popularizer of “Interpersonal Neurobiology,” Dr. Daniel Siegel, who has convincingly argued that our minds are partly defined by their intersections with other minds. Said another way, we are wired to “sync” with others, and the more we sync (the more psycho-emotionally we connect), the less our brains acknowledge self-other distinctions.

Later in that Forbes article Professor Coan is reported:

“A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” said Coan. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It’s a part of our survivability.”

So if science is discovering that our subconscious minds are connecting “psycho-emotionally” with the minds of others whom we trust, then it doesn’t seem like too great a leap to embrace human minds psycho-emotionally connecting with the animals that we trust, and vice versa.  Because for thousands upon thousands of years, the domesticated dog and man have depended on each other for food, protection, warmth, comfort and love.


References for those who wish to follow up on this article are:

Original Forbes article, written by David DeSalvo.

David DeSalvo’s website.

Daniel J. Siegelclinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.

Daniel Siegel’s book The Developing Mind.

Professor Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, British anthropologist, evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour.  His theory known as Dunbar’s Number explained here.

Oxford Journal: Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat.

Welcome Doctor Barkman!

A delightful contribution from a guest author.

Dear readers, from time to time I am approached by other authors who have flattered me by asking if I would like to publish their Blog posts from time to time.  So I have been doubly flattered by having two authors contact me in the last week.

So to the first.  It is with great pleasure that I welcome Jane Brackman, Ph.D., author of the blog Doctor Barkman Speaks who will, from time to time, republish her posts on Learning from Dogs. I have no doubt that you will enjoy her scientific expertise regarding dogs

So today, please enjoy …



Canine illustrator Robert Dickey assigned thoughts and feeling to his Boston Terrier based on the dogs’s expressions. Here he illustrates contentment, sympathy and misery.  (Dogs from Life, Page & Co., 1920)
Are you gonna eat that? Are you gonna eat that?  I’ll eat it.”
Is this what dogs think?  Or do they experience more complex thoughts?  Apparently science is getting pretty close to figuring it out. If not exactly WHAT they’re thinking, then where in the brain the thoughts are coming from.  Since brains are pretty much the same across mammal species, if researchers identify which parts of the the brain light up, based on what humans have said, they can guess what the dogs’ thoughts are, too.

A couple of smart guys, Gregory Berns and Andrew Brooks of Emory University, watching a military dog assist Navy Seals as they overran the Osama Bin Laden compound, got a brilliant idea.  If you can teach dogs to jump out of helicopters, surely dogs could be trained to enjoy themselves inside an fMRI machine while scientists calculate what the dogs are thinking by scanning their brains.

The researchers, who are dog-lovers, explained, “We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.  From the outset, we wanted to ensure the safety and comfort of the dogs.  We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly.

So they recruited a professional dog trainer, Mark Spivak, and two companion dogs, a Feist Terrier named Callie and a Border Collie named McKenzie.  The team said that both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their brain activity.

In the photo below Callie wears ear protection as she 
prepares to enter the scanner.  The research team 
includes, from left, Andrew Brooks, Gregory Berns and Mark Spivak.  
(Credit: Photo by Bryan Meltz)

This is what the researchers wrote in the journal article that was published in PLOS last week:

Because of dogs’ prolonged evolution with humans, many of the canine cognitive skills are thought to represent a selection of traits that make dogs particularly sensitive to human cues. But how does the dog mind actually work? To develop a methodology to answer this question, we trained two dogs to remain motionless for the duration required to collect quality fMRI images by using positive reinforcement without sedation or physical restraints. The task was designed to determine which brain circuits differentially respond to human hand signals denoting the presence or absence of a food reward.

Eventually they hope to answer the more profound questions we all ask:  Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when we are happy or sad?  How much language do they really understand?”  (And here’s one from me- When they pee on the carpet and we don’t find it until the next day, when we scold them do they know why we are scolding them?)

Do dogs feel guilt?
You can read a brief summary of the project here:  What is Your Dog Thinking? Brain Scans Unleash Canine Secrets.

Or read the entire scholarly article here:

Berns, Gregory, Brooks, Andrew and Spivak, Mark, Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs (April 27, 2012). 

Jane Brackman, Ph. D.


Well, I don’t know about you but I found this a most fascinating article.  All of us who live around dogs, both physically and emotionally, sense the closeness, may I use the word ‘magic’, of the relationships.

Take a look at the photograph below.  Until I left the UK in 2008, a few of us owned a lovely old Piper Super Cub.  It was a joy to fly.  I used frequently to take Pharaoh to the grass airfield, Watchford Farm, up on the Devon moors.  One day he showed such interest in the aircraft that I lifted him up to the passenger’s seat, strapped him in and taxied all over the grass airfield.  This picture shows something that is difficult to explain otherwise – Pharaoh’s real joy at sharing the adventure.  Of course, I didn’t fly with him, that would have been a step too far, but we did taxi almost up to take-off speed.  Dr. Barkman, what do you make of that?

Watchford Farm, Devon, July 2006.