Book review – What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

Do you have a dog? I grew up surrounded by Newfoundlanders. Ever wondered what they are thinking? Whether they think at all? You’d be forgiven for thinking that What It’s Like to Be a Dog is another book for dog lovers and, in part, it is. But don’t let the title mislead you, this book is primarily a popular account of ongoing developments in animal neuroscience, specifically on what scanning mammal brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can tell us about our shared similarities.

What It's Like to Be a Dog

What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience”, written by Gregory Berns, published in Europe by Oneworld Publications in April 2018 (hardback, 301 pages)

Humans are forever curious about what is going on inside the heads of their canine companions and there is no shortage of books trying to answer the question what it is like to be a dog (for instance Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know; Hare & Wood’s The Genius of Dogs: Discovering the Unique Intelligence of Man’s Best Friend; Coppinger & Feinstein’s fairly scholarly How Dogs Work; or Bekoff’s Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do). Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors specifically write about the dog’s amazing sense of smell (for instance Warren’s What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World; Horowitz’s Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell; or Rosell’s Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose).

American neuroscientist Gregory Berns stepped into this crowded field with a radical idea: can we use MRI scanners to see what is happening in the brain of a dog? If you’ve ever been in a hospital to have an MRI scan, you will know that you have to lie still inside of a big and noisy machine while the scans are made. How do you get a dog to do this without sedating or restraining it, which would defeat the setup of your experiment? Having seen military dogs in action, Berns was convinced that dogs can be trained to voluntarily cooperate. His initial work with his dog Callie was described for a general audience in How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Dog Decode the Canine Brain.

” […] Berns [had] a radical idea: can we use MRI scanners to see what is happening in the brain of a dog?”

Meanwhile, Berns has not rested on his laurels and has trained up a pack of dogs. Mixing descriptions of research in human neuroscience with his own experiments, Berns takes the reader through some of their methods and findings. Using experimental protocols previously used in trials on humans (e.g. measuring self-control), Berns quickly found that analogous regions in dog brains are active during these tasks. Berns argues that these analogies matter. If activity in a certain part of the brain is linked with certain behaviours in humans, and you see comparable brain activity and behaviour in dogs, you are on safer ground to argue that dogs are having comparable experiences to us.

Continuing to push the envelope, Berns has ventured beyond dogs, and this is where the subtitle of the book comes in. The reader is introduced to the study of neural connections between different brain regions, or connectomics (see also Seung’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are), and the MRI technique used to study it, diffusion tensor imaging or DTI. Using this, Berns has studied the brains of deceased sea lions, dolphins, and even the extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. His work on dolphins brains, showing that the wiring between the auditory and visual regions of the brain is similar to that in humans – which runs counter to textbook knowledge so far – is fascinating. Perhaps echolocation is not so alien to us after all. His efforts to get access to the rare few thylacine brain specimens are a thrilling adventure.

Berns spends quite some pages on the arguments of those who disagree. There are philosophers and scientists who are not convinced that the reductionist approach of neuroscience will bring us any closer to understanding what another animal feels, as we can never fully access those internal experiences. Berns disagrees – it is through this reductionist approach he has shown that the brains of many mammals are similarly wired, and respond in a similar fashion to those of humans. We are probably not that different after all. From an evolutionary viewpoint this seems self-evident, I would add. Even Darwin thought the difference in our minds is one of degree, not of kind. There are limitations though, as Berns also concedes when discussing language. I don’t expect meaningful conversation across the species barrier anytime soon, or perhaps ever.

” […] what is the point of any of this research, beyond a bunch of scientists getting to play with their MRI-toys?”

Maybe you have so far wondered what the point of any of this research is, beyond a bunch of scientists getting to play with their MRI-toys. Bonus points therefore for Berns highlighting the relevance of his research in the last chapter. The similarities between human and other mammalian brains in both function and structure make a strong case in favour of animals experiencing joy, pain, or social interactions much like we do. We may not have quite cracked the matter of self-awareness, but that seems only a matter of time and technical advances. This kind of research should further influence and inform how we treat animals, whether pets or livestock.

In places, Berns throws in perhaps just a bit too much brain terminology. Not being a neuroscientist myself, I would have welcomed some schematic pictures of brains to help me place the names of all the brain regions. That minor quibble aside, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is a well written and engaging account of the cutting-edge and unorthodox neuroscientific research Berns and others have been involved in, and is a book that should appeal far beyond an audience of dog owners.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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What It’s Like to Be a Dog hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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