Brain scans show that with dogs, it’s what you say — and how you say it
A new study by a team of Hungarian researchers suggests that dogs understand both the words we say and how we say them by using the same parts of the brain as humans do to recognize and process spoken language. The study was conducted by Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, and published earlier this month in the journal Science.
During the experiment, the researchers had 13 dogs sit motionless inside a MRI scanner while they listened to recordings of their trainer’s voices as they spoke to them using different combinations of words and intonation. Speaking in both praising and neutral tones, the trainers said words like “super” or “however” in both a high-pitched, cheerful voice and then with a more neutral delivery.
“During speech processing, there is a well-known distribution of labor in the human brain,” said lead researcher Andics. “It is mainly the left hemisphere’s job to process word meaning, and the right hemisphere’s job to process intonation.”
After analyzing the dog’s MRI scans, the scientists found evidence of a similar cognitive division occurring when the canines listened to their trainers’ speech. Regardless if the trainers delivered words using a praising intonation or not, the dogs’ brain activity suggested that they were actually able to recognize positively-charged words—such as “super” or “fantastic”—as praise, meaning dogs can process vocabulary and particular words independently of how it is said.
Because they are able to process vocabulary and intonation distinctly, the study’s findings indicate that canines use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the meaning of words, and the right hemisphere to separately process intonation and pitch—similar to humans.
“The human brain not only separately analyses what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning,” Andics said. “Our findings suggest that dogs can also do all that, and they use very similar brain mechanisms.”
The research team also found that while these processes are distinct, that only praising words activated the canine’s brain reward center if it was spoken in a praising way. In other words, just as people do not want to hear complimentary language said to them in a less-than-complimentary manner, the same is true for dogs. This suggests that dogs respond better when praising words are used in combination with praising intonation. In comparison, meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words said in a neutral tone, did not produce the same effect.
“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” Andics said. “Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.”
Although it has been found that other animals can also understand language, dogs are the ideal species to study given their close contact with humans dating back thousands of years.
It is also worth noting that since only a small number of dogs participated in the experiment, future larger studies involving a greater number of animals will be necessary to determine if the study’s results can be replicated.
If so, the findings suggest that humans share more in common with animals in regards to language processing than previously thought. It also indicates that the mental ability to process language evolved earlier than previously thought, and that it was the invention and mastery of words that sets humans apart from other species.