Dogs And Cognitive-Evolution: Animal's Brain Helps Detect Facial Cues In Humans

First Posted: Aug 04, 2015 11:19 AM EDT

Ever wonder how man's best friend can gauge your emotions?

New findings published at PeerJ show that when dogs stare back at us, a specialized region of the brain actually reveals evidence of cognitive-evolution that may help explain their extreme sensitivity to human social clues.

"Our findings show that dogs have an innate way to process faces in their brains, a quality that has previously only been well-documented in humans and other primates," says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and the senior author of the study, in a news release.

For this current study, researchers focused on how dogs respond to faces versus everyday objects. The study examined how dogs view both static images and video images on a screen while they underwent an fMRI. As dogs do not typically interact with two-dimensional images, it was a particularly challenging experiment for them to learn how to undergo paying attention to a screen.

Only six of the eight dogs enrolled in the study were able to hold their gaze for about 30 seconds via images placed on the screen for meeting the experimental criteria. However, it was enough to bring about clear results.

A region of the temporal lobe responded significantly more to movies of human faces than to those of everyday objects. Furthermore, when dogs saw still images of human faces versus dog faces, this same region responded similarly. However, the same region also responded more to human and dog faces when compared to everyday objects.

What's particularly interesting about the study is that the reward system of the brain was not involved when dogs saw a human face. For instance, one might think that a dog would see a human face and associate it with food--signaling the reward and pleasure center of the brain. However, this was not the case.

"That study identified only a few face-selective cells and not an entire region of the cortex," added Daniel Dilks, an Emory assistant professor of psychology and the first author of the current dog study.

Based on this and other research, the study authors hypothesis that distinguishing faces is quite critical for social creatures. 

"Dogs have been cohabitating with humans for longer than any other animal," Dilks says. "They are incredibly social, not just with other members of their pack, but across species. Understanding more about canine cognition and perception may tell us more about social cognition and perception in general."

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