Tag Archives: brain

Dogs pay attention to what we are saying

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said–those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences–but also to other features of that speech–the emotional tone and the speaker’s gender, for instance. Now, a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 26, 2014 provides some of the first evidence of how dogs also differentiate and process those various components of human speech.

I'm listening...new research proves our dogs are paying attention to what we say and how we say it

I’m listening…new research proves our dogs are paying attention to what we say and how we say it

“Although we cannot say how much or in what way dogs understand information in speech from our study, we can say that dogs react to both verbal and speaker-related information and that these components appear to be processed in different areas of the dog’s brain,” says Victoria Ratcliffe of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Previous studies showed that dogs have hemispheric biases–left brain versus right–when they process the vocalization sounds of other dogs. Ratcliffe and her supervisor David Reby say it was a logical next step to investigate whether dogs show similar biases in response to the information transmitted in human speech. They played speech from either side of the dog so that the sounds entered each of their ears at the same time and with the same amplitude.

The input from each ear is mainly transmitted to the opposite hemisphere of the brain,” Ratcliffe explains. “If one hemisphere is more specialized in processing certain information in the sound, then that information is perceived as coming from the opposite ear.”

If the dog turned to its left, that showed that the information in the sound being played was heard more prominently by the left ear, suggesting that the right hemisphere is more specialized in processing that kind of information.

When presented with familiar spoken commands in which the meaningful components of words were made more obvious, dogs showed a left-hemisphere processing bias, as indicated by turning to the right. When the intonation or speaker-related vocal cues were exaggerated instead, dogs showed a significant right-hemisphere bias.

“This is particularly interesting because our results suggest that the processing of speech components in the dog’s brain is divided between the two hemispheres in a way that is actually very similar to the way it is separated in the human brain,” Reby says.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that dogs actually understand everything that we humans might say or that they have a human-like ability of language.  But, says Ratcliffe, these results support the idea that our canine companions are paying attention “not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say.”

Source:  EurekAlert! media release

Journal reference:  Ratcliffe et al. Orienting asymmetries in dogs’ responses to different communicatory components of human speech. Current Biology, November 2014

Dogs’ brains respond to human voices

Yet more research on how dogs’ brains work.  This time from a research team at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and published in the journal Current Biology.

Using functional MRI, the team could see where blood flowed in the brains of a group of 11 dogs.  The dogs had been specially trained using positive reinforcement techniques to lie still in the MRI scanner for six minutes.

A dog lies still in the fMRI scanner, wearing earphones to pipe in sounds as part of the study. (Photo by Eniko Kubinyi)

A dog lies still in the fMRI scanner, wearing earphones to pipe in sounds as part of the study. (Photo by Eniko Kubinyi)

which tracks blood flow to various areas of the brain, a sign of increased activity—to peer inside the minds of dogs. One of a handful of labs groups worldwide that’s using the technology in this way, they’ve used positive reinforcement training to get a study group of 11 dogs to voluntarily enter the fMRI scanner and stay perfectly still for minutes at a tRead more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-dog-can-tell-from-your-voice-if-youre-happy-or-sad-180949807/#DXcpTX0jfeQGFWVY.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

The team played each dog a series of over 200 sounds across several MRI sessions.  The sounds included human voices, dog vocalizations, and meaningless noises.

When the results were compared, it showed that the dogs’ brains appear to have a dedicated area that displays more activity in response to voices (whether human speech or dogs barking) than other meaningless noises (such as glass breaking).

More importantly, that part of the brain shows more activity upon hearing an emotionally positive sound, as compared to a negative one.  This means that our dogs are able to distinguish a tone of voice that is positive from one that is negative. (Something many of us probably already knew)

The voice areas of the dogs’ brains is similar to that found in humans, suggesting that our species evolved from a common ancestor almost 100 million years ago, enabling a high degree of communication and social structure.

“We know that dogs don’t have language, per se, but we see now that dogs have very similar mechanisms to process social information as humans,” Attila Andics, lead researcher on the study says. “It makes us wonder what aspects of so-called ‘language skills’ are not so human-specific after all, but are also there in other species. That’s something we plan to look at.”

Source:  Smithsonian Magazine

Here are my earlier blogs about functional MRI studies on dogs:

they show that the dogs’ brains appear to have a dedicated area that displays more activity in response to voices (whether human speech or dogs barking) than other meaningless noises (such as glass breaking), and that part of this area shows more activity upon hearing an emotionally positive sound, as compared to a negative one.Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-dog-can-tell-from-your-voice-if-youre-happy-or-sad-180949807/#DXcpTX0jfeQGFWVY.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter