Dogs Are People, Too



From TheNewYorkTimes-SundayReview:

FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.

Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.

Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.

Until now.

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.

With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

Soon, the local dog community learned of our quest to determine what dogs are thinking. Within a year, we had assembled a team of a dozen dogs who were all “M.R.I.-certified.”

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

To read more click link up top.


Sorting Out the Junk in my Brain.

Tenzin Gyatso gives a characteristic hands-rai...

Appointing a file clerk: I was rearranging assorted neurons in my spidery attic, trying to establish some semblance of order, but I soon threw my electron arms up in the air, in despair. I might as well rename those neurons(or morons?), which govern my thought processes, “ludicrons”! It was then, that I remembered something, which my Gran, who was the wisest of women, had told me once. She had said, that if I ever had trouble remembering something, or if I wanted to organise my attic, that I should appoint an imaginary file clerk, name him, and then I would be able to summon him at will, later on. I might as well give this a try, but I did not envy the poor sod his task, which was gargantuan. I hope, that he has better luck than Sisyphus.I named him Bob, gave him an office in my subconscious and left him there to get on with it. A subconscious can be handy sometimes, if you want to relegate a job, that you had rather not do yourself.

This mental labour had as yet left me childless, except perhaps for Bob. I therefore decided to try my hand at meditation. However, my hand proved to be an uncooperative, little so-and-so. The more I tried, the more I did not succeed. But then, I had long ago swept the notion of a void, a vacuum or nothingness under the carpet, for the dust mites to gnaw on. I finally let go and immersed myself in my favourite state of Zen, to be at one with the all, the whole, which has no frontiers of any kind(I greeted Captain Pickard, while I was there!).

Eat Pray Love

Image via Wikipedia

This reminded me of a supplicant, who had come to the Dalai Lama, filled to the brim with questions. The latter had remarked, that the man was so full of questions as to leave no room for any answers. To let go is the key, but is far from easy! I thought to myself, that my wish for peace and tranquility was a tad futile in an ever changing universe. This left me, if not at peace, then at least with a modicum of well-being.

Next, I was transported to Elisabeth Gilbert´s book: Eat, Pray, Love, which sports an anecdote about a guru, who when complained to by his disciples, that a kitten was disturbing their meditation with its meowing, had consigned the kitten to be bound to a tree, out of hearing. This seemed to me to miss the point. Granted, it is far easier to achieve peace of mind, when all outside stimuli have been removed. But should one not seek to be able to achieve this cherished state even, or perhaps especially, when one finds oneself in the middle of New York´s central station? For is not life filled with distractions and tribulations? I thought, that the point of meditation was to help someone deal with life, in all its confusion.

Right, Bob, you may file this under the disjointed ramblings of a tired old soul! I wish you all the peace you can find.And if you should discover its hiding place, could you contact yours truly and divulge this most treasured information(perhaps you would also be kind enough as to include a map)?