For the past two years, Gregory Burns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta, has been training dogs to go into M.R.I. scanners to determine how their brains work and what they think of humans. After scanning a group of a dozen dogs, there was simply one inescapable conclusion: dogs are people, too! In other words, just like humans, dogs experience emotion.
Scientists have previously relied on behavioral observations to try to determine what dogs are thinking–until now. With the use of M.R.I. scanners, scientists can now look at the canine brain in a way they never have before.
What Burns and his partner discovered is nothing short of stunning. There’s similarity between dogs & humans in the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. Burns explains just what this region of the brain does in The New York Times:
In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money…Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.