Our Brains Are Hard-Wired to Pay Attention to Animals. Does It Work Both Ways?
Originally published in slightly different form on September 23, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
The Human-Dog Connection
I’ve written on numerous occasions about how dogs get under our skin, and seem to hi-jack our brains. In this article I’ll present three ideas. 1) That there’s a part of the human brain designed to make us pay attention to all animals. 2) That dogs may have a similar cognitive function hard-wired into their brains that makes them pay attention to us. And 3) that a new tool, now available to cognitive researchers, may be able to show us ways that the human and dog brain sometimes act in concert.
One of the many wonderful things about life in New York—at least for me—is the looks I see on people’s faces when they catch sight of one of the dogs I’m either training or boarding. In many cases these people don’t own a dog themselves, but just seeing one still lights up their day.
New research shows that there’s actually a part of the human brain that has been hard-wired by evolution to create just such a response.
Some readers may have figured out that I’m a fan of Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of biological anthropology at Penn State, who has written at length about the domestication of dogs from an anthropological point of view. (See my articles: “Oxytocin, and the Domestication of Dogs,” and “Pack Parents—Alpha Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?”)
In a recent article published here at PsychologyToday.com, Dr. Shipman discusses an interesting new study about the human brain: “New findings by a team of neurobiologists provide strong support for the idea that the connection between humans and animals is very fundamental, very important, and very heritable.” She then discusses the outcome from this study showing that there is a specific part of the human brain—the right amygdala—which is dedicated specifically to recognizing the shapes and movements of animals, and nothing else.
The researchers say “this function is localized to the right side because the entire right hemisphere of the brain has is specialized for responding to unexpected and biologically important stimuli.” (This is a form of pattern recognition, which tends to release dopamine, making us feel good.)
Dr. Shipman suggests that this wiring exists because it “helped our early ancestors survive their anomalous position as predators-without-bodily-equipment long before the invention of language. Unlike other mammalian predators, our ancestors did not evolve strong forelimbs, grasping claws, slicing teeth, speed, or an enhanced sense of smell ... [They] took an evolutionary short-cut 2.6 million years ago and invented stone tools.”
The Dog-Human Connection
It’s also possible that there was another short-cut: the hunting partnership we formed with another predator-without-bodily-equipment, ancestors of the gray wolf. (The one exception to the predatory attributes that both wolves and humans lack is that wolves have a highly-developed sense of smell.)
In an article in the August 2010 issue of Current Anthropology, Dr. Shipman proposed three distinct phases to what eventually became the domestication process, and offers a testable hypothesis that “human adaptive changes were causally linked to the animal connection.” She says the first phase took place over 2½ million years ago, and was probably based on shared hunting patterns between our ancestors and a wolf's.
If canines and humans share such a long history, and if the right amygdala in the human brain is designed to pay attention to the shapes, movements, and behaviors of animals, it would be logical to assume that dogoid shapes—to borrow a phrase from dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan —would rank number one. This would be especially true since dogs are arguably both the most social animal on the planet, and also the most aggressive, i.e., the most dangerous. 
This would also explain why the faces of so many New Yorkers that I see on a daily basis light up with joy (and dopamine) whenever they see a dog.
It might also be discovered that dogs have a humanoid template hardwired into their brains—specifically the right amygdala—that makes them pay close attention to us. After all, we share a long evolutionary history, and we’re the one species that has the greatest potential to benefit and do harm to domestic dogs.
When Two Brains Light Up as One
I recently discussed the new, portable PET scan developed by scientists at Brookhaven/Stonybrook for use on rats while they’re awake and behaving normally (or at least as normally as they can while wearing the miniaturized device).This means it’s now possible—or will be in the not-too-distant future—to do the kind of studies that could potentially show if dogs have “humanoid-detecting” neurons in their right amygdalae that would fire up whenever they pay attention to the behaviors of human beings.
We could do studies where a dog and its owner are both outfitted with futuristic versions of similar scanning devices, and observe the normal behaviors of both species while also getting readings on which parts of the brain light up when they’re interacting.
We could even test English biologist Rupert Sheldrake‘s theory that dogs communicate telepathically, through visual images, repeating the work he did on dogs who know when their owners are coming home, with PET scans showing the exact moment that the minds of both dog and owner begin to operate in synch.
A Far Out Conclusion (Or Is It?)
This brings us back to Pat Shipman’s latest blog article. In it she talks about the development of human language, saying that it has three attributes, 1) a topic, 2) information about that topic conveyed through symbols, and 3) a shared vocabulary.
According to Dr. Shipman, the first symbolic images left by our ancestors—at least those that we can interpret—are found in cave art. “These figurative images are overwhelmingly of animals; the representations are intensely detailed and realistic. I find it significant that these images do not depict landscapes, give directions for making tools or shelters or fires, or indicate where water or outcrops of useful rock can be found.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that our ancestors communicated through visual images, and that those images were primarily of animals. I think that’s at least partially because animals themselves were communicating with us (and still are) through visual images, not language.
As Lord Morgan—famous for Morgan’s canon—wrote in The Limits of Animal Intelligence (1892), when describing a dog coming home from a walk, tired and hungry, “I for one, would not feel disposed to question that he has in his mind’s eye a more or less definite idea of a bone.” Morgan goes on to define an “idea”—at least in this case—as a visual image.
Now think of the times your dog has let you know he wants something, but does so without any overt behaviors on his part. He just plants an image—of a bone or his dinner or a walk—in your mind. And you stop and say, “You want to go for a walk?” as if it were your idea.
Guess what? It may not have been your idea after all.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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