The US researcher on exploring the bond between dogs and humans and why animal testing needs to be questioned
Gregory Berns is a distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His current work involves taking brain scans of dogs to probe what goes on between canine ears, as well as using scanning techniques to probe the connections within brains of dead animals, including the extinct Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine.
In your new book, you say a dog’s brain is about the size of a lemon …
That’s probably for a medium-size dog, like a labrador. Bigger puppies generally have bigger brains, so obviously you are not going to get a lemon inside a chihuahua’s head.
What’s the rest made of? Is it simply air between the ears?
You are not far off. There is a lot of air in the skull, especially in the front between the eyes and above the nose, there is a big frontal sinus and then around the sides it is all muscle.
When did you first guess” I know, I’ll stick my puppy in an MRI scanner “?
It truly was a weird eureka moment. The catalyst was the Bin Laden mission. There was a military puppy on the mission and they can do things like jumping out of helicopters and that was my epiphany. If a puppy can be trained to jump out of a helicopter, certainly we can develop a dog to go in an MRI[ scanner ].
Why did you want to look at the dog’s brain?
It was an idea in search of a question initially. But one of the first things that I wanted to know was, if we look back at dogs’ reward system- in terms of parts of their brain that are critical for motivation and, if you want to be a little philosophical about it, pleasure and what they like- do they hang around us humen just for food because we feed them or is there more to the dog-human bond than that?
You said that you watch a reward response in a dog’s brain to human odours and that is evidence of something like love. Could it not only be an association with food?
That procuring by itself could be association. But it is not just any human because it was only the smell of their human that triggered that response, so there is a recognition component there- but it still could be” Hey, this is the person who feeds me .” Which is why we did the other experiment of food versus praise, where we examined the response to the expectation of food versus the expectation of” Hey good girl !” We find most of the dogs had equal responses to both. One of the big messages I am trying to convey is that dogs are individuals too and in every experimentation that we have done we ensure a range of responses.
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