I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.
Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.
For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.
It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.
Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)
At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.
What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”
Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.