Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Think Before You Open Your Mouth - Even to a Dog



With Dogs, It’s What You Say — and How You Say It

The New York Times  by JAMES GORMAN  AUG. 29, 2016
 

Dogs that were trained to enter an M.R.I. machine for the research. Credit Enik Kubinyi

Who’s a good dog?

Well, that depends on whom you’re asking, of course. But new research suggests that the next time you look at your pup, whether Maltese or mastiff, you might want to choose your words carefully.

“Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.

Dr. Andics, who studies language and behavior in dogs and humans, along with Adam Miklosi and several other colleagues, reported in a paper to be published in this week’s issue of the journal Science that different parts of dogs’ brains respond to the meaning of a word, and to how the word is said, much as human brains do.

A dog waiting for its brain activity to be measured in a magnetic resonance imaging machine for research reported in the journal Science. Credit Enik Kubinyi

As with people’s brains, parts of dogs’ left hemisphere react to meaning and parts of the right hemisphere to intonation — the emotional content of a sound. And, perhaps most interesting to dog owners, only a word of praise said in a positive tone really made the reward system of a dog’s brain light up.

The experiment itself was something of an achievement. Dr. Andics and his colleagues trained dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging machine and lie in a harness while the machine recorded their brain activity.

A trainer spoke words in Hungarian — common words of praise used by dog owners like “good boy,” “super” and “well done.” The trainer also tried neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.” Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.

The research found that different parts of dogs’ brains respond to the meaning of a word and to how the word is said, much as human brains do. Credit Vilja and Vanda Molnár

The positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted strong activity in the brain’s reward centers. All the other conditions resulted in significantly less action, and all at the same level.

In other words, “good boy” said in a neutral tone and “however” said in a positive or neutral tone all got the same response.

What does it all mean? For dog owners, Dr. Andics said, the findings mean that the dogs are paying attention to meaning, and that you should, too.

That doesn’t mean a dog won’t wag its tail and look happy when you say, “You stinky mess” in a happy voice. But the dog is looking at your body language and your eyes, and perhaps starting to infer that “stinky mess” is a word of praise.

Anna Gabor speaking to a dog as part of the research. Credit Vilja and Vanda Molnár

In terms of evolution of language, the results suggest that the capacity to process meaning and emotion in different parts of the brain and tie them together is not uniquely human. This ability had already evolved in non-primates long before humans began to talk.

Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who was not involved in the study, said he thought the experiment was well done and suggested that specialization of right and left hemispheres in processing information began to evolve well before human language. But, he said, it was still possible that dogs had independently evolved a similar brain organization.

Dr. Hare, who studies both dogs and primates, and specializes in cognitive neuroscience and evolution, also pointed out that the dogs could leave the experiment at any time. He wrote in an email, “They were volunteers as much as is possible with animals.” Primates, he said, cannot be trained to undergo MRI scans willingly.

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