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Dogs process faces in spe­cial­ized brain area, study reveals

pub­lished 09 August 2015 | mod­i­fied 09 August 2015

Dog face scannerDogs have a spe­cial­ized region in their brains for pro­cess­ing faces, a new study finds. The jour­nal PeerJ pub­lished on 4 August the research, which pro­vides the first evi­dence for a face-​selective region in the tem­po­ral cor­tex of dogs.

Our find­ings show that dogs have an innate way to process faces in their brains, a qual­ity that has pre­vi­ously only been well-​documented in humans and other primates
Gre­gory Berns, senior author, neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Emory University »

Hav­ing neural machin­ery ded­i­cated to face pro­cess­ing sug­gests that this abil­ity is hard-​wired through cog­ni­tive evo­lu­tion, Berns says, and may help explain dogs’ extreme sen­si­tiv­ity to human social cues.

Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy, which is research­ing evo­lu­tion­ary ques­tions sur­round­ing man’s best, and old­est, friend. The project was the first to train dogs to vol­un­tar­ily enter a func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) scan­ner and remain motion­less dur­ing scan­ning, with­out restraint or seda­tion. In pre­vi­ous research, the Dog Project iden­ti­fied the cau­date region of the canine brain as a reward cen­ter. It also showed how that region of a dog’s brain responds more strongly to the scents of famil­iar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of famil­iar dogs.

The Dog Project; What is your dog think­ing? Brain scans give glimpse:

(Source: Emory Uni­ver­sity YouTube channel)

For the cur­rent study, the researchers focused on how dogs respond to faces ver­sus every­day objects. “Dogs are obvi­ously highly social ani­mals,” Berns says, “so it makes sense that they would respond to faces. We wanted to know whether that response is learned or innate.”

The study
The study involved dogs view­ing both sta­tic images and video images on a screen while under­go­ing fMRI. It was a par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing exper­i­ment since dogs do not nor­mally inter­act with two-​dimensional images, and they had to undergo train­ing to learn to pay atten­tion to the screen.

A lim­i­ta­tion of the study was the small sam­ple size: Only six of the eight dogs enrolled in the study were able to hold a gaze for at least 30 sec­onds on each of the images to meet the exper­i­men­tal cri­te­ria.

The results were clear, how­ever, for the six sub­jects able to com­plete the exper­i­ment. A region in their tem­po­ral lobe responded sig­nif­i­cantly more to movies of human faces than to movies of every­day objects. This same region responded sim­i­larly to still images of human faces and dog faces, yet sig­nif­i­cantly more to both human and dog faces than to images of every­day objects.

If the dogs’ response to faces was learned — by asso­ci­at­ing a human face with food, for exam­ple — you would expect to see a response in the reward sys­tem of their brains, but that was not the case, Berns says.

A pre­vi­ous study, decades ago, using elec­tro­phys­i­ol­ogy, found sev­eral face-​selective neu­rons in sheep. “That study iden­ti­fied only a few face-​selective cells and not an entire region of the cor­tex,” says Daniel Dilks, an Emory assis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and the first author of the cur­rent dog study.

The researchers have dubbed the canine face-​processing region they iden­ti­fied the dog face area, or DFA.

Humans have at least three face pro­cess­ing regions in the brain, includ­ing the fusiform face area, or FFA, which is asso­ci­ated with dis­tin­guish­ing faces from other objects. “We can pre­dict what parts of your brain are going to be acti­vated when you’re look­ing at faces,” Dilks says. “This is incred­i­bly reli­able across people.”

One hypoth­e­sis is that dis­tin­guish­ing faces is impor­tant for any social creature.

Dogs have been cohab­i­tat­ing with humans for longer than any other ani­mal. They are incred­i­bly social, not just with other mem­bers of their pack, but across species. Under­stand­ing more about canine cog­ni­tion and per­cep­tion may tell us more about social cog­ni­tion and per­cep­tion in general.
(Daniel Dilks, lead author, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy, Emory University)

Do Dogs Really Miss Us?

(Source: Brain­Craft YouTube channel)

(Source: Emory Uni­ver­sity news release, 04.08.2015)

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