That special connection you feel with your dog is all in your mind — quite literally. A brand new and innovative Hungarian study compared human and dog brains in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and discovered some surprising similarities when it comes to the area of the brain that processes vocal information. In a nutshell, what they found was that dogs and humans process and respond similarly to vocalizations, including speech, suggesting that people who talk to their dogs aren’t total weirdos. Dog owners will be pleased to hear that after thousands of years of cohabitation!
Numerous researchers have looked at how dogs respond to human vocalizations, with some research being done vice-versa as well (other species, such as the cat, have also been profiled: for example, a recent study showed that cats vocalize in a range similar to human infants to get attention from their people). While researchers agree that dogs cannot understand human speech, they definitely respond to it, and can learn basic voice commands. Dogs also appear responsive to vocalizations like crying or laughter, indicating that they can understand emotions among their human companions.
The Hungarian study had human and canine subjects lie in fMRI scanners and subjected them to a range of vocalizations including laughter, barking, crying and whining. They found that dogs, like humans, have voice areas of the brain, used to process vocal information, and that dogs can understand such information in a manner similar to humans; this also allows them to respond to emotions. While the ability to comprehend and act on emotions was stronger for members of the same species, the fact that dogs had vocal processing areas was an important discovery, not least because dogs are now the first nonprimates known to have such areas.
Don’t jump to conclusions, though. You might think that with thousands of years of cohabitation, humans and dogs have shaped each others’ minds, but the researchers are more cautious: “Although parallel evolution cannot be excluded, our findings suggest that voice areas may have a more ancient evolutionary origin than previously known.”
They base their findings on the fact that humans and dogs diverged evolutionarily almost 100 million years ago, and have only been living together for 32,000 years, at most. While that feels like a long time, it’s a blink of the eye for evolution. If they are suspicious that voice areas are older than previously believed are correct, it may shed important insight into ancient societies, evolutionary pathways, and more — and, of course, it means that Doctor Dolittle may have been right all along when it came to talking to animals. It will be fascinating to see more studies of animals descended from the same evolutionary ancestors to see if they share voice areas as well.
For now, it appears that primates are no longer the only game in town when it comes to voice areas in the brain, and that people who chat with their pets are on to something.
Photo credit: Karen.