We were pleased that Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who uses functional MRIs to measure canine (and human) brain activity, and author of the 2013 bestseller, How Dogs Love Us, is back with new work. In What It’s Like to Be a Dog, Berns brings us up-to-date on recent discoveries coming out of his Dog Project at Emory University. His team, which includes 30 volunteers and their amazing co-pilots, takes on subjects like selfcontrol (dogs have been found to have varying capacities for this attribute), understanding of human language and differing value systems. And—no surprise for Bark readers—the finding that dogs are happiest being around their humans, preferring us to other dogs. We are the apples of their eyes.
It is important to note that, unlike other laboratories that use dogs in functional MRI research, Berns is very careful about the way the project’s dogs are handled. Even though MRI machines require subjects to remain perfectly still in a tight space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds, Berns’ subject dogs are never restrained and never sedated. To achieve this admirable state, Berns partnered with a fabulous trainer, Mark Spivak, at the project’s inception in 2011. Spivak uses positive reinforcement and clicker training to shape the dogs’ behavior so that they freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. Steps are provided for them to walk into and out of the scanner, and they can leave whenever they want, giving them what Berns calls “the right of selfdetermination.” In constructing this study, Berns was guided by a concern for ethics; as he notes, “We would never force people to participate in research, so why would it be okay to force animals?”
This book, while focusing on dogs, also explores the inner lives of wild animals, from dolphins and sea lions to the extinct Tasmanian tiger. No, these animals weren’t studied via the MRI; instead, they used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is an MRI-based form of imaging that “takes advantage of the fact that movement of water molecules around the brain is biased.” Brains of sea lions who died as a result of environmental problems were obtained from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., and for the extinct tiger, they used brains that had been preserved as part of museum collections. The process is a tad too complicated to explain here, but trust me, it’s given Berns and his team a comparative brainmapping tool that has resulted in some very compelling findings. My favorite involves a talented sea lion named Ronan, part of a study at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Berns observes that Ronan’s ability to find and keep a musical beat could change how people think about the evolution of language. (To see more of this pinniped star in action, go to YouTube and enter Ronan + sea lion in the search box.)
In setting out to explore what differentiates humans from other animals, Berns is demonstrating that the divide really isn’t that wide. This truly fascinating book shows a profound respect for animals, and one that is broadening our understanding of what it’s like to be a dog.