Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘PloS One

Are you a dog lover? Before scanning his brain?

You love your dog?

Today, dogs are a fixture in almost 50% of American households.

Theresa Fisher  November 20, 2014 566

This partner story is part of BrainMic, a collaboration with GE to share the latest advances in brain research and technology.

In the 30,000 years humans and dogs have lived together, man’s best friend has only become a more popular and beloved pet.

From the way dogs thump their tails, invade our laps and steal our pillows, it certainly seems like they love us back. But since dogs can’t tell us what’s going on inside their furry heads, can we ever be sure?

Actually, yes. (Don’t tell me you know that from the scanning of dog brains?)

Thanks to recent developments in brain imaging technology, we’re starting to get a better picture of the happenings inside the canine cranium.

Scientists are actually studying the brains of dogs. And what the studies show is welcome news for all dog owners: Not only do dogs seem to love us back, they actually see us as their family.

It turns out that dogs rely on humans more than they do their own kind for affection, protection and everything in between.

Dogs gathered around MRI scanner MR Research Center in Budapest. Image Credit: Borbala Ferenczy

The most direct brain-based evidence that dogs are hopelessly devoted to humans comes from a recent neuroimaging study about odor processing in the dog brain.

Animal cognition scientists at Emory University trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure their neural responses to the smell of people and dogs, both familiar and unknown. Because dogs navigate the world through their noses, the way they process smell offers a lot of potential insight into social behavior.

The scientists found that dog owners’ aroma actually sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the wafting smells to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else.

These results jive with other canine neuroimaging research.

In Budapest, researchers at Eotvos Lorand University studied canine brain activity in response to different human and dog sounds, including voices, barks and the meaningful grunts and sighs both species emit. Before this study, we had no idea what happens inside canine brains when humans make noise.

Among other surprising findings, the study revealed marked similarities in the way dog and human brains process emotionally laden vocal sounds.

Researchers found that happy sounds in particular light up the auditory cortex in both species. This commonality speaks to the uniquely strong communication system underlying the dog-human bond.

In short: Dogs don’t just seem to pick up on our subtle mood changes — they are actually physically wired to pick up on them.

“It’s very interesting to understand the tool kit that helps such successful vocal communication between two species,” Attila Andics, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, told Mic. “We didn’t need neuroimaging to see that communication works [between dogs and people], but without it, we didn’t understand why it works. Now we’re really starting to.”

Dog waiting to be scanned at MR Research Center in Budapest. Image Credit: Borbala Ferenczy.

Behavior research supports the recent neuroscience too. According to Andics, dogs interact with their human caregivers in the same way babies do their parents.

When dogs are scared or worried, they run to their owners, just as distressed toddlers make a beeline for their parents. This is in stark contrast to other domesticated animals: Petrified cats, as well as horses, will run away. (Very smart instinct)

Dogs are also the only non-primate animal to look people in the eyes. This is something Andics, along with other researchers, discovered about a decade ago when he studied the domestication of wolves, which he thought would share that trait. They endeavored to raise wolves like dogs. This is a unique behavior between dogs and humans — dogs seek out eye contact from people, but not their biological dog parents.

“Bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets,” said Andics.

Image Credit: Getty

Scientists have also looked at the dog-human relationship from the other direction.

As it turns out, people reciprocate dogs’ strong feelings. In a study published in PLOS One in October, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers measured human brain activity in response to photos of dogs and children.

Study participants were women who’d had dogs and babies for at least two years.

Both types of photos sparked activity in brain regions associated with emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction. Basically, both furry and (typically) less-furry family members make us equally happy.

Dog-lovers have committed a few notable gaffes in interpreting dogs’ facial expressions, e.g., assuming the often-documented hangdog look signifies guilt, an emotion that, most behavior experts agree, requires a multifaceted notion of self-awareness that dogs probably don’t have.

But, as with family, our instinctive hunches about dog behavior are often correct.

“Sometimes our intuition about what’s going on inside dogs’ heads is dead-on,” said Laurie Santos, the lead researcher at Yale’s Canine Cognition Center. “Like, that dogs are seeking out help from us — and that’s true based on studies — which is different from even their closest relatives, wolves.”

The precise wish or worry lurking in a dog’s doleful look may not always be clear. But we can relish the fact that we know our pets love us as much as we hoped, maybe even more. Even if they’re not full-fledged children, they see us as family. And to us? Well, they’ll always be our babies.

Note: What about these people who claim that they know when their dogs are smiling?

 What Language are you Speaking? Any Moral Judgments attached to native or foreign language?

Our Moral Native Tongue

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Moral choice is influenced by whether the language you communicate with was native or foreign.

When a disaster choice is made in a foreign language that you understand, there is an emotional distance, and you opt for a utilitarian outcome: sacrifice one person to save 5.

Photo

Credit Olimpia Zagnoli. Gray Matter

ON June 20, 2003, employees of the Union Pacific Railroad faced a difficult decision as a runaway train headed toward downtown Los Angeles: Should they divert the train to a side track, knowing it would derail and hit homes in the less populated city of Commerce, Calif.?

Did the moral imperative to minimize overall harm outweigh the moral imperative not to intentionally harm an innocent suburb?

They chose to divert the train, which injured 13 people, including three children who were sent to the hospital.

This extreme real-life situation resembles a philosophical thought experiment known as the trolley problem, which was designed to probe our moral commitments.

It goes like this: Imagine you are standing on a footbridge over rail tracks. An approaching trolley is about to kill five people farther down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to push a large man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. This will save the five people but kill the man. (It will not help if you jump; you are not large enough.) Do you push him?

No one approves of killing an innocent person.

At the same time, sacrificing one person to save five has its own compelling moral logic. One of these two moral principles has to yield, and there is considerable debate about which one it should be.

What is uncontroversial is that your reaction to this dilemma should not depend on morally irrelevant aspects of the situation, like what color shirt the large man is wearing, or what the weather is, or whether you are being presented with the dilemma on a Tuesday rather than a Wednesday.

But we’ve got some surprising news.

In a study recently published in the journal PloS One, our two research teams, working independently, discovered that when people are presented with the trolley problem in a foreign language, they are more willing to sacrifice one person to save five than when they are presented with the dilemma in their native tongue.

One research team, working in Barcelona, recruited native Spanish speakers studying English (and vice versa) and randomly assigned them to read this dilemma in either English or Spanish.

In their native tongue, only 18 percent said they would push the man, but in a foreign language, almost half (44 percent) would do so.

The other research team, working in Chicago, found similar results with languages as diverse as Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English and Spanish. For more than 1,000 participants, moral choice was influenced by whether the language was native or foreign.

In practice, our moral code might be much more pliable than we think.

Extreme moral dilemmas are supposed to touch the very core of our moral being. So why the inconsistency?

The answer, we believe, is reminiscent of Nelson Mandela’s advice about negotiation: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

As psychology researchers such as Catherine Caldwell-Harris have shown, in general people react less strongly to emotional expressions in a foreign language.

An aversion to pushing the large man onto the tracks seems to engage a deeply emotional part of us, whereas privileging five lives over one appears to result from a less emotional, more utilitarian calculus.

Accordingly, when our participants faced this dilemma in their native tongue, they reacted more emotionally and spared the man. Whereas a foreign language seemed to provide participants with an emotional distance that resulted in the less visceral choice to save the five people.

If this explanation is correct, then you would expect that a less emotionally vivid version of the same dilemma would minimize the difference between being presented with it in a foreign versus a native language.

And this indeed is what we found.

We conducted the same experiment using a dilemma almost identical to the footbridge — but with one crucial difference. In this version, you can save the five people by diverting the trolley to a track where the large man is, rather than by actively shoving him off the bridge.

We found that people reacted much less emotionally in this situation. Indeed, 80 percent of our participants opted to divert the trolley, their choice identical in both native and foreign languages.

Our research does not show which choice is the right one.

But it does help us predict and explain some moral choices. Derailing the runaway train in California, for instance, was a choice we predict most people would make, both in their native and nonnative tongue.

 


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September 2021
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