Synaptic Sunday #6 – The Dog’s Mind and fMRI Edition
1) How do you train a dog to get into an fMRI scanner and stay there without resorting to restraints and drugs?
2) More importantly, why would you want to get a dog into an fMRI scanner?
From the link:
The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?
An fMRI scan doesn’t give us mind-reading abilities; it shows blood-flow to different areas of the brain (oxygen-rich as compared to deoxygenated blood), and researchers infer brain activity from that. When the dogs were given a signal for “treat,” for instance, there appeared to be increased activity in a part of the brain that in people is associated with rewards. But can we get a real understanding of what the dog is experiencing? If you look at questions of empathy, what is empathy to a dog? Maybe we’d see increased activity in certain parts of the brain that in humans is associated with empathy, which could be interesting, but what does that tell us more deeply about the dog’s mind and subjective experiences? If they know when their owners are happy or sad, what kind of knowledge is this: a reading of facial and behavioral cues, or something deeper than that? This is a limitation of fMRI when it’s used on people as well, though with people we can try to supplement the fMRI scan findings with other measures – various cognitive tasks, including those that ask for verbal input (“woof, woof”).
3) Overall, fMRI studies can be quite problematic, for dogs or humans (or dead salmon) – as detailed in this recent article: Controversial science of brain imaging.