Gregory Berns: A Look Inside the Minds of Animals

photo: Helen Berns

Gregory Berns is the Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he directs the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education & Research in Neuroscience. He's the author of three previous nonfiction books. His latest, What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Neuroscience (Basic Books, Sept.), aims to answer the question of whether dogs experience emotions like people do.

What inspired you to develop the Dog Project?

My favorite dog--a pug named Newton--had died at the age of 15. After spending that long together, I really missed him and wondered whether he had possessed anything like the feelings I had for him. A year after his death, there was a bunch of publicity about military working dogs because of the dog on the bin Laden mission. When I saw pictures of dogs jumping out of helicopters, I realized that dogs could also be trained to go in MRI scanners. I had spent nearly two decades using MRI to study how the human brain responded to rewards and incentives. So why not use MRI to figure out how dogs' brains worked and what they think?

What findings from the Dog Project surprised you the most?

The project began in 2012 with just two dogs. One was Callie--a black terrier mix who replaced Newton. Since then, the project has grown to over 90 dogs that have learned to go in the MRI, and we have done a dozen different experiments on a range of topics, including the relative values of social reward and food reward, impulse control, face processing and smell and language. We have even developed an MRI task to predict which dogs would become good service dogs. What continues to surprise is the degree of similarity to humans in how dogs' brains function. To me, this suggests that dogs experience things much like we do (even without language to label everything.)

Has your research affected your relationship with your own pets?

I have a special relationship with Callie now. She is vastly different than Newton. Callie is very active and likes to learn new things. Our relationship seems to be based more on doing things together. It's made me realize that dogs like to do things because it's fun--not just because they might be rewarded. Of course, not all of the dogs in the house are like this. Like humans, they have different personalities and motivations for doing things.

In the chapter "Talk to the Animals," you discuss the differences between dogs and humans in terms of language processing. Dogs, it seems, understand the world through actions whereas humans understand the world through nouns/things. This is a gross oversimplification, but could you discuss what this might mean for your future research, and perhaps our future understanding of what it means to be a dog?

There is a famous dog named Chaser who knows over 1,000 words. When we tried to teach some of the MRI dogs the names of two objects, it was much harder than we anticipated. Eventually, they did learn the names of the objects, but the MRI showed that their brains were using different mechanisms than humans do. This is not surprising considering how large our brains are. We humans understand that words are symbolic placeholders for the things and actions they represent. But dogs seem to use words in a more concrete way--by linking the sound directly with the action to get an object. It doesn't seem to be abstract. We need to study this further, but understanding the limitations on the receiving end may help us communicate with dogs better.

Do you think that your investigations into animal consciousness will have an impact on how humans treat animals?  

I hope so. There has been a long tradition in science that dismisses the internal mental states of animals. Largely this is because animals can't speak, but that doesn't mean they don't have feelings or that they aren't aware of these feelings. I think the evidence is now showing that animals have mental lives much like we do. So that means you have to question how animals are being used in research and for food.

In your epilogue, you discuss your plans for a project you call the Brain Ark. What instigated this work, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

I became obsessed with an extinct animal called a thylacince--also known as the Tasmanian tiger--which looked rather doglike. The last known thylacine died in 1936. I searched the world for preserved specimens and used MRI to reconstruct their brains. The Brain Ark stemmed from this. I want to digitally archive the brains of megafauna before they disappear. The thinking is that by better understanding whatever is in a bear's brain that makes him a bear, or what's in an elephant’s brain that makes him an elephant, we can help these animals survive.

What's next for you?

I'm planning to take a deeper dive into how dogs learn and expand the Brain Ark to include as many species as possible. --Amy Brady


What It's Like to Be a Dog and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, Gregory Berns, Basic Books, 9780465096244, animal neuroscience, animal advocacy, nonfiction, shelf awareness, maximum shelf, author interview


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