The neuroscience that shows us what it’s like to be a dog

You can relate to this husky, though you may seem very different.
You can relate to this husky, though you may seem very different.
Image: Reuters/Russell Cheyne
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When Gregory Berns was in medical school in 1990, he killed a dog. He severed the vessels near the animal’s heart according to his anatomy professor’s instructions, in order to end its suffering.

Berns, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, never really recovered from the experience. His regret led him to his life’s work: Understanding the minds of animals.

Informed by his early experience, Berns is an academic and researcher who also advocates for kinder science, doing work that reveals the similarities between people and creatures like dogs, dolphins, sea lions, and more. And while he trains canines to participate in sophisticated research projects meant to illuminate their inner lives, he gives the dogs in his studies options. If a dog chooses not to step up to the MRI for a brain scan, they are free to go.

The neuroscientist’s latest book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog, won a Smithsonian Best Science Book prize in 2017 and was just released in paperback last month. The title is a reference to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” (pdf). Nagel argued that even with huge advances in neuroscience, humans would never understand the subjective experience of animals, using bats as an example, because we’re just too different—we don’t use sonar or fly.

Berns disagrees. He believes that we can understand how animals experience the world and start to make sense of their inner lives—and that we have more in common with our pets and livestock and the creatures of the sea than perhaps we’d like to imagine. After all, if we start to acknowledge that other living things have a rich emotional existence not too different from our own, we will be forced to question how we treat them, and perhaps change our behaviors as well.

A dolphin state of mind

From the neuroscientist’s perspective, it’s not that difficult to recognize the mental state of an animal, particularly another mammal. We experience many of the same physical, perceptual, and emotional processes and states.

Though a dog may have no language to describe fear or joy, Berns argues that it’s obvious the animal is going through similar sensations as our own and that different dogs also have distinct characteristics that make them more or less inclined to behave certain ways, just as humans have personalities. ”The inability of animals to label an internal state did not mean they didn’t experience something on the inside akin to what a human would experience under similar circumstances,” Berns writes.

With the advent of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study brain responsiveness and measure activity in different brain regions, which has advanced our understanding of human cognition, he saw a way to prove Nagel wrong. Berns sought a greater comprehension of what it means to be a dog or bat or dolphin or even an extinct creature, like the Tasmanian thyacine, last seen in the early 20th century, by examining their brain architecture and comparing it to knowledge about humans.

To this end, Berns has used imaging technology to scan the brains of dogs at rest and on various quests, study sea lions who’ve ingested debilitating toxins, examine the architecture of dolphins’ brains, which seem very different from ours at first glance but actually bear remarkable similarities, and even to analyze preserved brains of the long-dead thyacine. As a result of all this research, it’s his conviction that just because we don’t have sonar doesn’t mean we are unable to relate to all kinds of animals, including bats or dolphins who echolocate and fly or swim. Berns writes:

Brain imaging, both in terms of structure and function, shows enough similarities that it is reasonable to extrapolate varieties of experience across a wide range of animals. With similar brain architecture for the experience of joy, pain, and even social bonds, we can assume that animals experience these things much like we do, albeit without the words for those subjective states.

The question of animal sentience is resolved, he says. Research has shown that rats experience regret, dogs value praise as much as food, and sea lions can do basic logic problems. But it still remains for neuroscientists to answer whether animals also experience consciousness and self-awareness.

The next steps

There is some indication that bigger brains, which can transfer more information, are associated with consciousness. It’s not clear to any scientist just how big a brain an animal would need to be conscious, or if size really is the key determinant. But Berns believes that as technology improves, so too will our understanding of brain activity and which processes are involved in consciousness.

He argues that as scanning capabilities advance, researchers will also begin measuring how the minds of animals function in more natural environments. “We do not yet know the full extent to which animals are self-aware, but I believe neuroscience will soon answer that question,” he writes. “Before then, people will need to decide how much consciousness—mere sentience or self-awareness—is necessary to afford legal considerations.”

Berns thinks we already know enough about animals’ inner lives and experiences to be advocating for them to have legal rights, and he points to cases in recent years that support this view, for example arguing that elephants should have legal standing or that the well-being of dogs should be considered in divorce proceedings. But even for those who aren’t yet convinced that we need to think more seriously about our relationship to animals, Berns provides a motivation.

“We Homo sapiens may soon be an animal in the eyes of our successors,” the neuroscientist writes. “Natural selection is winding down for the human species.” As humans increasingly tinker with genetics and manipulate the genome—as was just demonstrated this week with the announcement that Chinese scientists used gene editing technology to alter the DNA of two newborn babies—Berns predicts a new species will come into existence. ”Call it Homo hominis. Man of men.”

This new species will be as far beyond us as we are beyond chimpanzees today in terms of intelligence and capabilities, according to Berns. “We would be doing the future remnants of our species a favor by considering now what it means to be sentient and what rights that confers,” he writes.

This warning, which may have seemed fantastic or dramatic when Berns wrote his book, now seems very relevant indeed. The newborn gene-edited babies are a sign of the times, proof that this future he predicts is not just the stuff of science fiction anymore. And if the neuroscientist is right, humans won’t be able to coexist long with a superior, stronger species, especially not if it treats us the way we do other creatures. In Berns’ words, ”Later will be the wrong time to ask if sapiens deserves to coexist with hominis, or whether future sapiens should be relegated to zoos.”