Recently the New York Times published an article by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University.
The article was titled “Dogs Are People, Too” and addressed the research that Berns and his colleagues have been conducting over the past two years. In the study that Berns referenced, dogs were basically trained to get into an M.R.I scanner (no sedation or restraints) and stay motionless for short periods of time (with earmuffs on to block the sound of the M.R.I.). The dog’s brains were then scanned and their activity analyzed.
Berns and his team were attempting to understand how a dog’s brain works and what they think about us humans. Their work also reflected on a dog’s capacity for emotions and thus sentience. If you’ve ever had a friendship with a dog you won’t be surprised by Berns’ conclusion. His reaction: “dogs are people, too.”
Berns suggested that dogs have emotions similar to ours and thus they “may be” sentient and entitled to certain rights not attributed to “things” or “property.”
This statement was made in part because of new information about the “caudate nucleus” (a region of the brain found in both dogs and humans) gleaned through this study:
“…Many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”
Whenever findings such as these come out, it’s hard not to feel a bit conflicted. On some level it’s good that people are taking note of our fellow animals’ sentience, but then on another level (no matter how “harmless” the test) it’s hard not to shake one’s head at the fact that it takes scientific testing for people to learn this. A lot of questions linger…
How is a dog’s capacity to feel emotions new information?
Why does a dog’s brain have to work like ours in order to prove that they deserve legal protection?
How many of our fellow animals do we have to poke, prod and scan before we admit what our hearts already know?
Are we going to have to rigorously test every species of animal on the planet before we decide they deserve the right to life and liberty (or whatever form of liberty their level of domestication permits)?
It’s true that from a scientific standpoint saying that animals have emotions (without a test to “prove it”) can come across as anthropomorphizing. It’s also true that Berns’s research was very benign in comparison to many tests done on animals in the past.
But this study still seems to reflect the general speciesist bias of the scientific community.
Berns may well have had the best of intentions, but we don’t need an M.R.I. scan to tell us that our dog friends are happy to see us when we come home, or that they deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Science can only tell us so much. But our conscience gives us all the evidence we need.