Dogs use a part of their brain for processing numbers. But more than that, dogs use a similar brain region to process numbers as we humans do.
I found that fascinating.
This was one the results of reading a very interesting article published by The Smithsonian magazine earlier on in December.
Let me share it with you.
Dogs’ Brains Naturally Process Numbers, Just Like Ours
Scientists stuck 11 dogs in fMRI scanners to see if their brains had a knack for quantity
Katherine J. Wu, smithsonianmag.com
Dec. 19, 2019,
Sit. Stay. Fetch. Count?
Sort of. A team of scientists has found that dogs naturally process numbers in a similar brain region as humans, reports Virginia Morell for Science. While that doesn’t mean mutts can do math, it seems they have an innate sense of quantity, and may take notice when you put fewer treats in their bowl, according to a study published this week in Biology Letters.
Importantly, while other research has delved into similar stunts that scientists coaxed out of canines by rewarding them with treats, the new study suggests a knack for numbers is present in even untrained dogs—and could have deep evolutionary roots. This supports the idea that the ways in which animals process quantity in their brains may be “ancient and widespread among species,” Michael Beran, a psychologist at Georgia State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Morell.
To test pooches’ numerical prowess, a team led by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, scanned the brains of 11 dogs of different breeds as they gazed at screens serially flashing different numbers of variably-sized dots. As the images flipped rapidly past, the researchers looked for activity in a region of the canine brain called the parietotemporal cortex, analogous to humans’ parietal cortex, which is known to help people rapidly process numbers. In humans, this region lights up on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner when numbers start to vary—a sign that cells are working hard to puzzle through the difference.
Something similar seems to apply to canines, the team found. When dogs hopped into the scanner, most of their parietotemporal cortices showed more activity when the numbers of dots flashed onto the screen changed (for instance, three small dots followed by ten big dots) than when they stayed the same (four small dots followed by four large dots).
The behavior wasn’t universal: 3 out of the researchers’ 11 test subjects failed to discern the difference. But it’s not surprising that the rest did, Krista Macpherson, a canine cognition researcher at Western University in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Morell.
Of course, approximating quantities of dots isn’t the same as solving complex mathematical equations, as our brains are equipped to do. But both behaviors stem from an inherent sense for numbers—something that appears to span the 80-million-year evolutionary gap between dogs and humans, the findings suggest.
Understanding how that basic ability might evolve into “higher” mathematical skills is a clear next step, study author Lauren Aulet, a psychologist at Emory University, says in a statement. Until then, we humans can count on the fact that we have plenty in common with our canine companions.
An inherent sense for numbers. Wow!
This is yet another aspect of the relationship we have with our pooches that is deeper and closer than I imagined, and I’m sure I don’t only speak for myself.
When I first started writing this blog, more than six years ago now, I had no idea whatsoever that the community of friends who read and follow Learning from Dogs would develop to the point where the volume of ideas and suggestions sent in are, are by far, the biggest source of creative posts.
Take today’s for example. The link to the article was sent to me by Chris Gomez a little over a week ago and yesterday was the first time that I read the article in full.
It’s a fascinating and incredibly interesting piece.
Unlike a certain companion animal that will go unnamed, dogs lose their minds when reunited with their owners. But it’s not immediately obvious why our canine companions should grant us such an over-the-top greeting—especially considering the power imbalance that exists between the two species. We spoke to the experts to find out why.
Call of the Wild
In order to gain an appreciation for dog behavior, it’s important to understand that dogs are descended from wolves (or at least a common wolf-like ancestor). Clearly, the two species, separated by about 10,000 to 15,000 years, share a lot in common.
But there’s only so much we can extrapolate from wolves; dogs are categorically different by virtue of the fact that their ancestors actively sought out the company of humans. Making matters even more complicated is the realization that Paleolithic era wolves are not the same as the ones around today. Consequently, any inferences we make about dog behavior and how it relates to wolves is pure speculation.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us, says there’s a fundamental difference between modern wolves and those that lived long ago.
“The most social of those ancestral dogs who were hanging around humans had to have been the most social of those wolves,” he told io9. “They joined humans and eventually evolved to become dogs. The remainder of the wolf population were among the most antisocial of those animals, and did not want to have anything to do with humans.”
That said, however, Berns says we can clearly see behaviors in wolves that are similar to those expressed by dogs. For instance, wolves greet each other by licking each others’ faces. For these pack animals, this licking behavior serves as an important social greeting, but also as a way to check out and determine what the other wolves have brought home in terms of food.
Wolves, says University of Trento neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara, greet each other in different ways depending on the type of individual relationships they’ve forged. Feral dogs, he says, behave in similar ways. But the big change in terms of adaptive sociality has been the ability of domesticated dogs to interact with humans using our own communicative signals, such as gazes and gestures.
“When I’m at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana, I am always struck by how much some of the specific wolf behaviors resemble behaviors I see in dogs—but so much more ritualized, and sort of writ large,” she told io9. “I witnessed one behavioral study there in which wolves who knew each other well had been separated for a few days and were put back together. The greeting rituals were fascinating, with lots of crouching and chin-licking from the subordinate wolves. You do see these behaviors in dogs, but more sporadically, without such intensity.”
At the same time, dogs exhibit behaviors that are markedly different from wolves. As Hekman explained to me, one of the most dramatic differences between dogs and wolves is the ability of dogs to accept novelty. Simply put, dogs are less fearful than wolves.
“It may sound a little odd to say that a wolf, who can easily kill you, is afraid of you, but that is precisely why they can be dangerous: because they may choose to take proactive measures to protect themselves, using their teeth,” says Hekman. “Dogs are a lot less likely to do this.”
Indeed, given their wolf ancestry, it’s remarkable that dogs get along with humans so well. But as Berns pointed out to me, sociability has turned out to be a rather powerful adaptation, one that has worked a lot better for dogs than it has wolves.
“I mean, look around the world and see how many dogs there are,” he says. “With dogs, it’s proven to be a highly effective evolutionary strategy. There are in the order of tens of millions of dogs in the world, so in many ways, dogs have out-evolved wolves.”
Berns says that whatever the sociality that dogs have evolved, one of the defining traits of a dog is the degree to which they will interact with humans as well as other animals.
How Dogs See Humans
A key aspect of Berns’ brain imaging research is to study how dogs perceive us. We humans know that dogs are a separate species, but are dogs cognizant of this as well? Or do they see us as members of their pack, or as some kind of weird dog?
According to Berns’ research, dogs that are presented with certain smells in scanners can clearly tell the difference between dogs and humans, and also discern and recognize familiar and strange odors. In particular, the scent of a familiar human evokes a reward response in the brain.
“No other scent did that, not even that of a familiar dog,” Berns told io9. “It’s not the case that they see us as ‘part of their pack as dogs,’ they know that we’re something different— there’s a special place in the brain just for us.”
Berns stresses that dogs are social with us not just because of their scavenging tendencies.
“What we’re finding with the imaging work is that dogs love their humans—and not just for food,” he says. “They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”
Hekman says it’s hard to know what dogs are thinking, but she suspects they understand that we’re not quite like them. As evidence, she points to aggressiveness in dogs as it’s directed to other dogs and humans—differences that aren’t correlated. She says it’s quite common for a dog to have a problem with one and not the other. In other words, dogs appear to perceive other dogs as one group, and humans as a separate group. What’s more, dogs will seek the help of humans and not other dogs—a possible sign that dogs understand that humans have resources that dogs do not, and are thus a different kind of social entity.
But do dogs see us as part of the pack?
“It’s important to note that a pack of wolves is a family—literally, usually mom, dad, puppies, and some young offspring from previous years who haven’t gone off on their own yet,” says Hekman. “Do dogs see us as part of their family? I think they do.”
So Happy to See Us
Virtually all experts agree that the happiness dogs feel is comparable to what humans experience, and that it’s similar to how humans feel towards each other.
“All the things that we’ve done with the brain imaging—where we present certain things to the dogs and map their reward responses—we see analogous brain responses in humans,” says Berns. “Seeing a person that’s a friend or someone you like, these feelings are exactly analogous to what a dog experiences.”
Berns says that dogs don’t have the same language capacities as humans, and that they’re not capable of representing things in their memory like we can. Because dogs don’t have labels or names for people, he suspects that they have an even purer emotional response; their minds aren’t filled with all sorts of abstract concepts.
A dog’s particular greeting, however, is dependent on several factors, such as the dog’s temperament, the personality of the owner, the nature of their relationship, the level of stress and anxiety, and the dog’s tendency/capacity for self-control.
It’s important to note, however, that stress manifests differently in dogs than it does in humans.
“The separation from the owner for the dog is not voluntary,” says Vallortigara. “It is always unnatural for a dog to detach and abandon the pack.”
Dogs will sometimes go solo on a temporary basis if they’re sufficiently motivated to do so, but they do it knowing that social contact can be resumed at virtually any time.
“The exaggerated level of greeting that can be observed in some dogs is likely due to the fact that they have not yet learned to accept the possibility of non-voluntary detachment,” says Vallortigara.
When trying to appreciate a dog’s over-the-top greeting, Hekman says we need to imagine what it was like for a dog to be alone all day while we were gone.
“This dog probably had a pretty boring day without much enrichment, and moreover may have been alone all day, which is unpleasant for a social animal,” she told io9. “So in addition to being glad to see us, they are probably feeling some relief that they will get to do something interesting, like go for a walk, and have someone else around. Some people are able to have a dog walker come in or send their dogs to daycare—this is a great solution to what can otherwise be a difficult lifestyle for a dog.”
And as Berns points out, the greeting ritual is a social bonding mechanism—but it’s also a function of curiosity.
“When they jump up, they’re trying to lick you in the face,” says Berns. “Part of that is a social greeting, but they’re also trying to taste and smell you to figure out where you’ve been and what you’ve done during the day. So some of it is curiosity. If I’ve been with other dogs, for instance, my dogs know it, and they resort to sniffing intensely.”
How to Greet Your Dog Back
It’s obviously important to respond to your dog when you get home, but according to Marcello Siniscalchi, a veterinary physician from the University of Bari, how you should react will depend on the context of the situation and the needs of the dog itself.
“The greeting ritual will vary from dog to dog because any individual dog perceives and reacts to detachment from the owner in a very personal way,” he told io9. “Some dogs need to be greeted, in others it is better to avoid any escalation in the level of excitation, others need to learn strategies for coping with the stress associated with detachment.”
Hekman says there’s definitely a tension between our buttoned-down greeting rituals (“Hi, honey, I’m home!”) and theirs (“I want to lick you on the face repeatedly!”).
“My dog Jenny is a very enthusiastic greeter, and I hate having her jump all over me in her efforts to get at my face,” she says. “So I have taught her to get on a couch when I come home. I generally have to remind her to ‘get on your couch,’ but now she does with great enthusiasm, and waits for me to come over. The couch puts her more on my level, so she doesn’t have to jump, and I can bend forward and let her lick my cheek, which is a very important part of the ritual for her.”
Hekman stresses that, for any dog, it’s important for us not to tell them what not to do (e.g. “don’t jump on me!”), but to tell them what to do.
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 …
HOW DOGS THINK – NEW SCIENCE LOOKS INSIDE THEIR MINDS WITH MRI IMAGING
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?)
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?